Barack Obama and Alan Keyes in 2008: Race, Gender, and Lessons from the 2004 U.S. Senate Campaign

An exit poll on the 2004 political contest between Democratic candidate Obama and Republican candidate Alan Keyes is revealing about contemporary voter patterns. It may show some problems for presidential candidate Obama as well. At the last minute, Alan Keyes was drafted by Republicans to replace the late Republican dropout Jack Ryan just 86 days before the election; Keyes had run twice and lost for U.S. Senator in Maryland. Both candidates are African Americans, probably the only occurrence of such a Senate contest in the history of U.S. politics, at least since Reconstruction.


Keyes, a former diplomat, well-known media commentator, and perennial political candidate (now including the 2008 race for president), took arch-conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights, at one point causing controversy by asserting that Jesus Christ would not vote for Obama because of positions on abortion.


Not surprisingly, given the lateness of the Keyes entry, his Maryland residency, and the blue state record of Illinois, Obama, a veteran of the Illinois State Senate and former community activist and top Harvard law student, won the election with nearly three quarters of the total vote (nearly a record for Illinois) and became only the third African American member of the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction (and only the fifth ever elected). Obama is widely considered a viable potential Democratic nominee, if not (yet) a front runner.


Nonetheless, details of the voting have implications for how Obama might be viewed by key segments of the voting population in election battles coming up soon in 2008.


According to a 2004 CNN exit poll taken on election day, women voters outnumbered male voters, and Obama got a larger percentage of female than male voters (73 percent versus 67 percent). Whites made up some 78 percent of the voters, with African Americans at 10 percent and Latinos at 9 percent. Among the three racial groups tabulated, whites gave Obama the lowest percentage of their votes (66 percent), with African Americans and Latinos giving him much higher percentages (92 percent and 82 percent respectively). Among four racial-gender groups, white men gave him the lowest percentage (64 percent) of the racial-gender groups tabulated, and women of color gave him the highest percentage (88 percent). Clearly, even against very weak opposition, the liberal Obama lost 36 percent of the white male vote. Apparently some whites saw Keyes as “essentially white” in his extremely conservative social and political views, those very characteristic of arch-conservative white candidates like George Bush.


The poll found little difference among age groups, with all but those 60 and older giving Obama at least 70 percent of their votes. Those in the highest age group gave him 65 percent of their votes. There was also little variation by income or union membership.


There was considerable variation by ideology and religion, with those saying they were liberal (23 percent of those sampled) giving Obama 91 percent of their votes, and those saying they were conservative giving him just 33 percent of their votes. Those who said they were white conservative Protestants gave him only 18 percent of their votes, while those who said they were Catholics (presumably mostly white) gave him 75 percent of their votes.


The voters were asked what the most important election issue for them was, and there was considerable variation in voting along these lines. The four top issues were Iraq, the economy, moral values, and terrorism, all issues accented by 18-21 percent of these voters. Obama got more than 88 percent of those who accented Iraq or the economy, but only 51 of those who accented terrorism and just 38 percent of those who accented moral values. On a question about the most important quality of a candidate, those who said “will bring change” gave 97 percent of their votes to Obama, which contrasted with only 26 percent of those who said “religious faith.”


As one might expect, there was significant variation by place of residence, with city voters giving Obama 80 percent of their votes, and rural voters just 58 percent of their votes, with suburban voters falling in between at 70 percent.


John Jackson, a 2006 visiting professor as Southern Illinois University (Carbondale), has noted that the significance of this lower rural vote in the fact that eight of the ten Illinois counties Obama lost to Keyes were together in a block in southern Illinois, an area that often votes like the South:

“These include Effingham, Jasper, Clark, Clay, Richland, Wayne, Edwards, and Wabash counties. These are rural and small town counties where cultural conservatism has always been strong and where religious fundamentalism is growing in its impact on politics.”

These are countries that are hard hit by corporate outsourcing of good-paying, often union jobs, but they still tilt rather Republican in their voting patterns. Given that 2004 was an extremely good year for Democratic candidates, and that Obama ran against an extraordinarily weak Republican candidate who had only recently entered the race and was widely expected to lose, this voting pattern suggests that in many parts of the South, white voters still are not inclined to vote for Democrats, especially black Democrats, in part because they see such Democrats as “essentially black” and as “weak” on moral and “family values.”


Jackson put the dilemma for an Obama national candidacy in these savvy words:

“Barack Obama has taken some initial steps toward doing exactly that in building coalitions during his first Senate race in Illinois, which is a large and diverse state. He successfully appealed to virtually all parts of the state in the general election against a controversial opponent. However even against Alan Keyes, Obama lost ten counties in areas indicative of the places where Republicans have recently won nationwide recently. The results in his first primary against Dan Hynes and Blair Hull [Democratic Candidates he ran against in the primary] indicate that rural and small town voters in Middle America are not his most natural constituency. Whether he can use that experience, build on it and take it to success on the national level is an intriguing question at this point.”

It remains to be seen if the candidates in 2008 have learned anything about race and gender from the 2004 campaign.

Bias and Redemption on the Q Train

I admit it. Trolling for news about racism can be a bit of a downer. And, when I first heard what happened on the Q train on the local television news last night, I was braced for the usual ka-thud of ‘bummer’ that runs through my head when hearing yet another news item about racism, hate crimes and anti-Semitism. I know, not very intellectually sophisticated, but there you have it.


And then, the story took an unexpected, Capra-esque, turn.


Short clips (2:40) from local tv affiliates are already up on YouTube. It’s definitely worth watching to the end for the redemption:


For those who’d rather skim than watch and listen, a young Jewish couple, Walter Adler and Maria Parsheva, got on the Q train and said “Happy Hanukkah” to the folks on the train. A group of white christians took exception, started getting aggressive, and one guy lifted up his shirt sleeve to reveal a tatoo of Jesus and said, “you killed him.” Very original. Then, the “Caucasians” (as they’re referred to throughout) started beating the crap out of the Jewish couple and no one did anything….until a Muslim guy from Bangladesh, Hassan Askari, stepped in, stopped the fight, and took a beating for his trouble. And, now Adler and Askari are friends (or, at least friendly); Askari attended a Hanukkah celebration with Adler. There are a number of memorable quotes, but this one, from the NYPost, sort of tickles me:

“A random Muslim guy jumped in and helped a Jewish guy on Hanukkah – that’s a miracle,” said Adler, an honors student at Hunter College.

There was no information included in the report about whether or not Adler had ever taken a sociology course. The other favorite quote from the clip is when Adler says that this is a “tragic step for New York City because we’re like the Mecca or the Jerusalem of multiculturalism.” I don’t know whether or not it’s a miracle, but it’s certainly an example of some pretty powerful individual agency to confront a decidedly nasty situation. As an act of resistance, it reminds me of the response in Billings, MT. to anti-Semitism, or, more recently, the pink t-Shirt response to homophobia from Nova Scotia. There are lots of lessons to be taken from this incident on the Q Train. And, since it’s finals week and the holiday season, I hope you’ll indulge me a little Capra-esque analysis and say that the lesson I’ll be taking away is this: it just takes one person, standing up and saying, no, not here, not in my town, not on this subway car, to make a difference.

ACLU Releases Report: “U.S. Racism Swept Under Rug”

In April, 2007 the U.S. government submitted a required report to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). That report, according to the ACLU, amounted to a “whitewash” (interesting turn-of-phrase) that minimized the ongoing and dramatic effects of widespread racial and ethnic discrimination in this country. So, yesterday, the ACLU released their own report, detailing this discrimination. The 215-page ACLU report, called “RACE & ETHNICITY IN AMERICA: TURNING A BLIND EYE TO INJUSTICE,” is available here.

A couple of additional sources from Michigan, Massachusetts, and Common Dreams. You’ll note that the analysis here gets increasingly DIY as the end-of-semester tasks pile up. 😉

Deadly Incarceration Trends

Chris Uggen has nice graph and preliminary discussion on the latest figures on prison, jail, probation and parole released from the Department of Justice. From 2005-2006, the prison population is up 3.5% and the jail population is up 2.5%, shifts that Uggen characterizes as “non-trivial.” Solomon Moore, writing for The New York Times, addresses race in these stats:

“The data reflect deep racial disparities in the nation’s correctional institutions, with a record 905,600 African-American inmates in prisons and state and local jails. In several states, incarceration rates for blacks were more than 10 times the rate of whites. In Iowa, for example, blacks were imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of the data by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.”

These latest stats on the current system of mass incarceration reflects a broader policy of “zero tolerance” in a number of arenas, such as schools and community policing, that specifically target youth of color.


While many agree on the grim litany of statistics that reveal racial disparities in incarceration, there is not wide agreement about the causes. One explanation offered by Michael Tonry is that the over-representation of blacks behind bars stems from the discriminatory targeting of policies such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Jerome Miller makes a persuasive argument that it is there is racial bias built into the entire system of criminal justice, and as long as politicians keep advocating for an increase in the size and number of police officers, jails, prisons and correctional officers to staff them, that the number of people (predominantly Black people) in the system will increase. Miller also warns that the pernicious resurgence of interest in genetics and crime alongside the massive crime control industry holds tremendous danger for racial minorities in their encounters with the justice system.


A slightly different explanation to these, though not inconsistent with them, is the notion there is a “deadly symbiosis” between urban inner-city neighborhood (e.g., “ghetto”) and the prison. In this conceptualization, put forward by Loic Wacquant, he argues that three institutions have historically “produced” race in the U.S., starting with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the ghetto. Following the Civil Rights era, the socio-political landscape has shifted so that:

“Now, a fourth ‘peculiar institution’—joining the hyperghetto with the carceral system—is remolding the social meaning and significance of ‘race’ in accordance with the dictates of neoliberalism. To be sure, the penal apparatus has long served as accessory to ethno-racial domination. But the role of the carceral institution today is different. For the first time in U.S. history, it is the primary apparatus for the social production of “race.”

What Wacquant is arguing here is that rather than the carceral system acting a multiplier of racial disparities that already exist a priori, the system is “for the first time” acting as “the primary apparatus” for creating race as a category and identity, “in accordance with” a powerful force he refers to as “the dictates of neoliberalism.” I find Wacquant’s argument rather compelling at first glance. There is something new, and something inherently racial, in the current state of mass incarceration. And, to be sure, neoliberalism is implicated here. However, the argument seems less persuasive upon closer inspection. Even as race is being “produced” by the carceral system for those it touches, this is by no means a grand theory of racial production, and it falls into the trap of locating “race” only within those who are non-white. How is race produced for the majority of people who are not directly under the carceral gaze? And, how is this production “dictated” by neoliberalism? There is too much structure in Wacquant’s “symbiosis” and not nearly enough agency.

Academic Racism

Mark Potok, over at Southern Poverty Law Center (where I did research for my diss/first book, thanks again SPLC), has a nice review of the recent kerfuffle on race and IQ, and appropriately enough calls it out under the heading “Academic Racism.”


Other folks around the blogosphere have done a good job of recapping the whole, nasty business. Cobb is strictly on the money when he writes:

It’s a blunder of the first order for Saletan or anyone who wishes to be taken seriously would not have any idea of who Rushton is.

And, Prometheus 6 pretty much says it all with the headline of his post here. It’s easy to pile on to Saletan for misjudgment, and he clearly deserves it, but the point I think is that the reason that his series resonated across a wide readership is that it taps into a deep reservoir of beliefs about racial inequality, including among academics.

Passing on Racism to Children

Melissa Lafsky, writing at the New York Times Freakanomics blog, has an
interesting post about some new research about parents passing on racism and
how seamlessly kids pick up on parents’ racial preferences. The study, “White
children’s alignment to the perceived racial attitudes of the parents: Closer
to the mother than father,”
appears in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology (Volume 25, Number 3, September 2007 , pp. 353-357). The authors Luigi Castelli, Luciana Carraro, Silvia Tomelleri, and Antonella Amari study includes a sample of fifty-eight (N=58) 4-7 year olds, and gets around the perennial problem of social desirability in adults’ answers about race by asking children directly about how parents’ attitudes about race:

Overall, the children showed a strong in-group preference in their choice of playmates and in the attribution of positive and negative traits to White and Black peers. In addition, children reported the belief that parents would be happier if they played with a White rather than a Black child.

The headline-grabbing bit and the part that I’m sure got this onto the Freakonomics blog is this bit:

Most importantly, we found that children’s attitudes were strongly correlated with the perceived expectations and attitudes of the mothers but not the fathers. This result further supports the idea that mothers’ attitudes might be more relevant than fathers’ attitudes in the formation of racial attitudes among children.

It’s not clear why the authors deemed this finding “most important.” It could be that they are trying to counter the prevailing cultural idea that white women are less racist than white men, though this seems a bit of a stretch. It’s easy to (mis?)read this research as another contribution to the culture of mother-blame. I tend to agree with Lafsky, who points toward the fact that women still carry the overwhelming responsibility for childcare rather than any deeply-rooted “matriarchal racism” (odd turn of phrase). Still, it’s interesting to note from one of the comments (#4) at the Freakonomics blog precisely how maternal racial preferences in playmate choices get realized:

I found this article interesting, but I have to wonder if the researchers have children. I live in San Francisco, where as a white woman I AM in the minority. ( I believe SF is currently 18% white.) When my son was young he had a black friend (they met in an after-school program)who lived in the projects. I certainly wasn’t going to allow my son to play at an apartment in the projects without spending many hours to assess if the home was safe, a luxury of time that I didn’t have. Added to the local the boy’s mother worked and had several other small children. I would have to pick up and drop off the friend each time. I began discouraging the friendship not out of racism, but out of inconvenience.

If my son was asked, would he have said I didn’t want him to have black friends?

Uhm, short answer: yes.


The longer answer is that using this kind of “inconvenience” as an excuse ends up reinforcing racial segregation and racial preferences that her son no doubt picks up on loudly and clearly. This is not to say that the kinds of barriers the woman notes about what it takes to facilitate an interracial friendship in the context of racially segregated (urban) housing are not real. The fact is that her choice to discourage the friendship in the face of such “inconvenience” makes those barriers even more real. The point is that there was a time, apparently now past, that interracial friendships between children of different races were regarded as one measure of a fully realized civil rights movement. The fact that this woman doesn’t want to make that effort is a choice that privileges personal convenience over a conscious effort at dismantling white privilege. It’s a constrained choice among limited options, to be sure, but it’s a choice nonetheless.

New York Urban League Reports on Racism in NYC

The New York Urban League has released a report detailing the effects of racism in New York City. The report, called “The State of Black New York City 2007,” provides a detailed analysis of the persistent disparities in black New Yorkers’ access to the job market, affordable housing, health care and schools. The Urban League has published similar reports off and on for 40 years. What’s unique about this report, according to City Limits, is that it presents a broad picture of the multifaceted disadvantages blacks face—and connects those indicators to a critique of what the report calls America’s “race-constructed society.” Explaining the study’s purpose at the launch last week, New York Urban League chairman Noel Hankin said:

“to monitor, measure and track the effects of racism is very important.”

No disagreement here with Mr. Hankin. The kinds of disparities the study describes are not surprising to those who’ve been reading, writing, and living with the effects of racism in urban environments. The 193-page report documents:

“the urgent institutional pressures, in health care and housing, in business, prisons and schools, that continue to oppress Black people and Black communities. In spite of the tremendous accomplishments and impressive strides made by individual African-Americans since the Civil Rights Movement, the systems of the United States continue to produce outcomes drastically biased against people of color. Whether in the education system, where Black and Latino children suffer in over-regimented and under-funded schools, or in the criminal justice system with its profiling, police brutality and sentencing disparities, the results are as predictable in Arkansas as in New York. Despite the Supreme Court Brown v. Topeka decision 54 years ago, we remain an apartheid nation in which white wealth is eleven times the wealth of Black people. These institutional disparities devastate Black communities. The systemic ‘cradle to prison pipeline’ chokes the Black community’s efforts to achieve equity. If we are to challenge this structural arrangement, we must, as a city and as a nation, first examine its roots in the historical and structural racism of this country.” (p.7)

It’s refreshing to see an analysis of racial disparities lead in this direction (“historical and structural racism”) rather than in the eddy of structural causes separated from racism. For the past several years, I’ve worked on a large research project at Rikers Island (NYC’s largest jail) and the communities most effected by mass incarceration, so I was especially interested to read what the New York Urban League’s report had to say about criminal justice. The statistics are the usual grim litany that reflect the “Gulag economy” I mentioned the other day:

“Over the past twenty-five years, the unique social phenomena of mass incarceration coupled with mass unemployment has disrupted and severely damaged the very heart of the Black community in New York State, indeed throughout the United States. … In New York State, by 2006, 50.4% of the state prison population was Black (28.4% Latino) and over 91% of the New York City jail population was Black or Latino, while Blacks accounts for only 15.9% of the state’s general population. … Approximately 75% of them [25,000 people annually returning from prison] will return to a few select neighborhoods in New York City. About 40% of them will return to Brooklyn alone.” (p.6)

Later in the report (p.9), the authors go on to cite the Correctional Association of New York research that points out the fact that a majority of those who use and sell drugs are white, yet 91% of the drug offenders in New York State prisons are Black and Latino. This seems to be strong evidence of systemic, institutionalized racism, that is, a system that ensures racially disparate outcomes almost entirely apart from individual knowledge, motivation, and behavior.

Yet, in the face of these enduring and depressing statistics, the report sounds a hopeful, politically progressive note:

The Black liberation movement had always understood and been under-girded by the following premise: Collective redress of grievances, organized and accountable to a grassroots Black constituency, and rooted in the historical memory of liberation struggles across the globe, brought down Jim Crow. It was this collective organizing strategy that fueled THE DREAM. In this political environment, systems change when there is a collective outcry demanding that change. Systems change or alter their course when they must — when they have no choice. Organizing in the future may be different than it was in the past. Maybe mass street action will be not be the primary strategy to challenge the inequities of our race-constructed society. But collective action is essential whether on the street or through the internet.” (p.10)

An interesting place to end up, I think. Collective action, redress of grievances, either through mass street action or the internet ~ or some combination of both I imagine.

He’s Back: What Don Imus has Learned

The Don Imus imbroglio was one of the first posts on this blog, so I thought that since he’s back on the air now, and once again getting coverage in the major news outlets, it would be worth a few minutes to revisit the issue. The New York Times reports that Imus is “chastened,” but what has he learned, if anything? Well, one of the lessons Imus, or his handlers, have learned is the importance of black faces in prominent places. Two of his new staffers on the show, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, are African American. When Imus introduced the two he said that they would join him in conducting:

“an ongoing discussion about race relations in this country.”

See? Fixed. All better now.


But, wait. What about the specifically gendered nature of Imus’ remarks? No comment from Imus on that aspect of his comments, and no attention in the mainstream press that I can find. Indeed, the New York Times reports that NOW issued a statement in support of Ms. Foster yet still critical of Imus; however, I wasn’t able to find any reference to that statement on NOW’s website, and the provided by the NYTimes just leads back to all the NYTimes articles about NOW (annoying). The issue of gender is nowhere to be found in the rest of the coverage I could find about it. This piece from Newsday frames the entire issue as a “debate” over “offensive speech” and “who can say what,” which seems only a small part of the issue but seems to be the favorite cliché to use when discussing the Imus debacle. In terms of lessons-learned, this is what the New York Times had to say:

“For all his bravado, Mr. Imus acknowledged that he had been chastened and, at times, humiliated these last few months, and that he deserved his punishment.
‘I think things worked out the way they should have worked out, he said. ‘We now have the opportunity to have a better program, to obviously diversify the cast.’
But, he added, ‘the program is not going to change.’

So it seems Imus learned the lessons of George W. Bush (and Condoleeza Rice) well: if you’re a white person that wants to say and do offensive, damaging things and not be held accountable for your actions, then obviously you’ve got to “diversify the cast.” My point here is not to call into question the politics or intention of Ms. Foster, Mr. Powell or even Condi Rice (well, ok Condi a little bit). My point is to take note of a strategy common to those thinking within the white racial frame, as it were. Rather than really examining the content of his offensive remarks and trying to understand what was offensive about them, or even trying to understand the political and economic inequality that makes the remarks so hurtful, Imus makes the move that so many other elite whites make: he “diversifies the cast” in the shallowest, most token-ish way possible, and calls that the “lesson learned.” Yet, the program remains “unchanged.”



Sadly, it seems the lessons Imus learned were all the wrong ones.