Race, Racism, and the Democratic Primary

In an In These Times article journalist David Sirota has set off some significant debate among Democratic Party analysts and activists about the role of what he calls the “race chasm” in the primaries so far. Reducing the primaries to the 33 (and this methodological issue is also contested) where he argues there was the clearest head-to head contest between Senators Obama and Clinton, Sirota provides this interesting primaries’ chart and this provocative argument about its meaning:

Though this graph does not prove that race is the only factor in the election, it does show a powerful trend: Namely, that Obama is winning very white states where black-white racial politics basically doesn’t exist, and states with a large enough black population to offset a racially motivated white vote. The Race Chasm – states with more than 7 percent but less than 17 percent black populations – is where Clinton has won three quarters of her states – and that’s no accident. These are states where black-white racial politics very much exist, but where the black vote is not big enough to offset a racially motivated white vote. And that white vote is being motivated by the Clintons.

He then makes a longer and even more controversial argument that the Clinton campaign has intentionally brought up racial issues to manipulate this “race chasm”:

Whether it was Bill Clinton likening Obama to Jesse Jackson; Clinton aides deriding Obama as “the black candidate” to the Associated Press; Geraldine Ferraro stoking anti-affirmative action anger by linking Obama’s success to his skin color; or Clinton surrogates deliberately reminding white audiences that Obama lived in the inner city, the Clinton campaign has been working overtime to hone a message aimed at stoking racial fears. The message boils down to one simple mantra: Barack Obama Is Black.

He adds that the Clinton campaign is now telling superdelegates that Senator Obama is not electable because many white voters will not vote for him.
This has upset some Democratic Party analysts and others as well. The Daily Howler offers this critique :

Sirota’s graph does in fact show that Obama “has destroyed Clinton” in “the states with the smallest black populations.” (The states in question on Sirota’s graph are these: Idaho, Vermont, Maine, North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas. We dropped Hawaii, for fairly obvious reasons.) Sirota is careful enough to say that this pattern is “likely” due to racial dynamics “in part.” But as good pseudo-progressives must do, he then moves straight to the racial insults, failing to note other obvious factors which could explain this clump of outcomes. One such factor is fairly obvious. These are almost all caucus states; on Sirota’s chart, all the data from these states (except Utah and Vermont) reflect caucus events. How different might these data have been if these states had conducted primaries? . . . And what would have happened if those other states had conducted primaries instead of caucuses? Once again, there’s no way to know—and the force of Sirota’s lusty charge stems from the big margins achieved in low-turnout caucus events. But in a great deal of modern “progressive” politics, the real purpose of the exercise is fairly clear—the real goal is the desire to brand “low information voters” as slobbering racists.

The point about caucuses is important because the caucus voters are such a small percentage of all voters in a state, and tend to be the more activist voters. In the caucus states white voters in the caucuses likely represent in the majority the more moderate to liberal white voters.

Whether or not Sirota’s analysis is correct, he is definitely correct that the fact that Senator Obama is black and Senators Clinton and McCain are white is a very important aspect of the political contests this year.

Most especially, the issue of whether a majority of white voters will vote for a black presidential candidate deserves much more discussion than it has received. It is the “white elephant” in the room. I have seen statistics indicating that no Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has received a majority of the white vote in the November presidential election, including a white male war hero like John Kerry (against an apparently “weak” opponent). It is quite significant that neither the mainstream media nor the liberal blog/web media have been willing to assess critically whether a majority (or even the 43 percent or so that winning Democratic presidential candidates have gotten in the past) of white voters — with heads full of the old white-racist framing of Black America — can and will vote for a Black presidential candidate.

There is a lot of political naivete out there among otherwise savvy political analysts that seems to assume that the white racist mindset, now 400 years old in this country, has magically disappeared from a majority of white voters’ minds. And/or that the white-racist mindset will be set aside in the voting booth. Yet the research evidence on the “racial chasm” that we regularly offer here suggests that that is not likely to be the case.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Ohhh, I have to address this one too. I think the idea that these states do not have the Black/White issues is interesting…that’s exactly what at least my State teaches us, but does that mean it’s true? Maybe in some regards compared to others like down here and perhaps back east, but certainly not others. And just because Washington State (and the others) have low African American populations, does that mean we can assume there is less, little, or no oppression that goes on? It’s there, just different—but of the same origins, and of the same creature. It’s like playing shadow boxing in the dark, I don’t know how else to put it. And we have serious issues pertaining to tribal groups, and so on…so, our concerns do stem back to the 500+ year marker, I think. Down here in Texas, there are no tribal nations/issues—so, it does really come down to the Black/White and perhaps Black/White/Latino thing—ours goes in every which way but loose…. It’s that whole state trajectory thing, I think—yet all the roots go back to a common origin in this nation. That’s what we need to get the states above to realize, recognize, confront, and take equal responsibly for….

    But I did want to quickly address Washington State’s Democratic voting process. They actually do hold primaries, they just don’t award any delegates from the primaries, hehe,—all the delegates come from the caucus. There were over 650K voters who participated in the primaries and 351K went to Obama and the other 300K went to Clinton. Obama won in both, though would have received less delegates if all delegates came from the primaries only rather than caucus only (or like Texas, both primaries and caucus)…. And heh, Clinton got a few delegates from the caucus, so it’s all good–she’s got some strong supporters up there too….

    I suppose debate can take place over which is better, more constitutional, less discriminatory, etc., but right now—I’m just concerned about knowing how each state allocates their delegates so we can figure out the best campaigning strategies (even though we are down to just a few states left). And I do not wish to trash on the Clinton supporters as I have met some very nice ones who said they would vote for Obama if he becomes the Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party (would they really? Only they know). Though, I have heard from others they will vote for McCain if he is elected…that’s racism right there. And I would like to throw out a couple of other points about the close race between Clinton and Obama—Clinton has just barely won in many of the primaries…I would like to argue she would have lost in many, if not all, if she would not have used racist tactics to manipulate the minds of the voters on voting day (and the few days before). Though, I don’t think Obama would have led by very much at the same time, but still would have won. There is another point I wanted to raise here but it slipped my mind. Oh, I wanted to say that I think another important thing for people to remember is that over 50% of the families in this nation have ended in divorce. Over 50% of the U.S. citizens have grown up in broken homes and conflict. We tend to imagine this white middle class nation that is composed of unbroken homes, etc. The 50%+ wants change and cannot relate to that stereotype or ideal type. And those who grew up in conflict, they don’t want it anymore, anywhere–including politics. So, that’s another reason why I think Obama is attracking a great number of voters from all backgrounds (and pulling people in by great numbers to register and vote this time around)–he understand it.

    But to close this without making it too long, the traditional blue states mentioned above will stay blue, regardless of which democratic candidate wins…. And it is important to remember the demographics of the Obama voters—they are not any less important, regardless of their wins came from primaries or caucuses, they are actually more important and more representative of this nation across class, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., in my humble opinion. It’s all very exciting and people are registering as we speak, the Obama campaign is providing transportation for people to vote (regardless of which party/candidate they vote for), etc. I’m excited and believe he’s going to be our next president!!! And I am confident Texas is going blue this year!!! (and hopefully some other nearby states)…. I’m staying optimistic!!! Obama for President!

  2. Seattle in Texas

    And real quickly, I do believe the numbers you see for the caucus results in each state has to be multiplied by about 15 or so for each candidate (or identify their mathematical ratio), then you will see how many people actually caucused—I’m almost certain those are collapsed results…. One of the good things about the caucus is that it is a good way to narrow delegates who will not late in time flip their votes—they carry through with their votes for the same candidate they voted for, in other words…. Again, there are pros and cons….


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