How Does Senator Obama Deal with Overt and Covert Racist Attacks?

In a recent article, “The Color-Coded Campaign,” John Heilemann seems to be one of the very first journalists in the mainstream media to take a serious and detailed look at Senator Obama’s problems with overt and covert racist thinking and framing by white voters. He begins with a customary question as to why Obama is not way ahead of Senator McCain, and indeed below 50 percent of the voters in all national polls. After discussing the usual reasons given for his modest (or in some polls no) lead over Senator McCain, such as contentions he is too “effete,” “aloof,” “liberal,” or quick to change positions, he then moves to the more likely reason:

Where he’s lagging is among white voters, and with older ones in particular…. Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black? “Of course it is,” says another prominent Republican operative. “It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s obviously a huge factor.”

He points to the coming troubles as the Republican attack machine cranks up:

And now he faces a Republican machine intent on blackening him further still. Add to that his exotic background (Kenyan father, Indonesian upbringing), his middle name, his urbanity and intellectualism, and the scale of the challenge ahead for him comes into sharp relief.

Most observers are very or fairly optimistic about his chances because of his campaign’s great efforts to get out the vote so far. But this effort, Heilemann argues, has some obvious limits. One veteran pollster

calculates that even if black turnout rises by 25 percent from 2004 (and Obama wins 92 percent), if Hispanic turnout holds steady (and Obama wins 60 percent of it, seven points better than John Kerry did), and the under-50 vote rises by 5 percent (and Obama wins half of young white voters), the Democrat would still need to win 40 percent of the [white voters], one point less than Kerry garnered and two points less than Al Gore did in 2000…. “To get there, he’s got to win roughly the same proportion of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that all other Democrats get. . . . He can’t win it just by changing the electorate.”

Yet numerous exit polls in the Democratic primaries showed that 9-11 percent of Democrats who voted for Clinton admitted to strangers (pollsters) that “race” was important in their choice. Heilemann then quotes the savvy and pro-Democratic poll analyst John Judis who believes that in the general election that figure in November could be 15-20 percent of Democratic and leaning to Democratic independent white voters. Heilemann then raises the million dollar question that few have analyzed in detail in the media:

Polling on African-American candidates has often been unreliable in the past, overstating support for them, coughing up large blocs of alleged undecideds who actually have no intention of voting for a black contender but are too embarrassed to say so…. “[Surveys] in this race…ask the ballot question ‘Who are you voting for?’ and then ask the ‘Who are your neighbors voting for?’ question,” says a GOP operative, referring to a common pollsters’ tactic of seeing through obfuscation revolving around race. “And between the first and second question, you see a five-to-ten-point shift in the answers. . . . And in primaries too numerous to list, exit polls overpredicted Obama’s performance….

Heilemann then suggests that the Republicans are trying to highlight Senator Obama’s “otherness,” which was the main point about the Paris Hilton–Britney Spears commercial, which had the unstated premise that he was only a (lightweight) celebrity because of his race. In this way, his race can be highlighted for the white racial framing in the back of many/most white voters’ heads by McCain’s campaign without mentioning his race. When Senator Obama tried to highlight these and similar Republican tactics as trying to scare (white, of course) voters because he “doesn’t look like the other presidents on those dollar bills,” then the McCain campaign accused Obama of “playing the race card,” the conventional white response to being called out on racial issues publicly.

Heilemann argues that almost all analysts have viewed Obama’s response there as a mistake because it highlighted his racial identity for white voters. That is, anything that highlights his race plays into the white racial frame and thus likely alienates some/numerous white “moderate” or “independent” voters. Heilemann points to  Senator Obama’s racial dilemma: He presumably cannot speak out against racism (he may have to?), but he cannot ignore the racist attacks either. And changing the subject does not easily work either:

What he needs is to find a way of talking not directly about race or racial politics but about his identity that at once elevates and grounds the conversation, that elucidates, soothes, inspires. That takes the air out of the attempts to make him seem foreign, not one of us.

But can he easily do this in a country where racist framing and action are still the foundation of the country–where most whites still operate, especially in private and backstage, out of a white racial frame in which the “dangerous black man” is at its center? As I have pointed out several times on this blog, there is plenty of social science data indicating this is the reality today. Why does the media, or the left blogosphere, not deal directly and openly with these issues of the white racist barriers standing in Senator Obama’s way? Can he overcome them as easily as many say?


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Okay, I had to come back and address this one. BECauuuse, I got wind that the “dangerous black man” image is just not working with some of the “colorblind” Democrats back in the Northwest who live in their very safe and secure suburban communities, drive the minivan or SUV, eat lots of granola, etc. and have virtually no contact with black communities at all, outside of their very occasional volunteer work that allows them to pat themselves on the back and remind themselves they are not racist etc., Obama is coming off as the “exception” for at least some folks, I would argue. And how? First, by magnifying his Christian ideals, pushing the colorblind rhetoric for the most part (then as has been well noted elsewhere in this website, unfairly criticizing black fathers, etc. and not other groups, which distances himself from various negative stereotypes, etc.), and appealing to all who make $250K or less in a variety of ways. Obviously there are many who will not vote for him soley because of race alone, this is undoubtedly true…but I think many are going to choose their economic well being over race because it comes down to self (and wealth) preservation for these folks (and the feeling they are not racist since they are supporting a black candidate…). At least back West where it is blue already, it appears he is coming as as more of the “exception”…this makes me wonder if the same holds true for other regions? (He’s gonna be our next prez, for sure…and tell me he does not totally rock on his position with relation to abortion…at last, somebody who’s got their screws in place on this issue!!!) 😀

  2. Joe

    Yes, a major research project — and a terrific one — would be to do several focus groups with whites in four regions in September and/or October on how or whether their racial views, and views of Obama and McCain, are changing. Would be pathbreaking and timely.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    I wanted to come back here because yesterday I was talking with a local very active Democrat, and she was pointing out the many similarities of what is going on today as compared to 40 years ago (both nationally and internationally)…then mentioned a date that is coming up in the very near future that was traumatizing for many Democrats and Civil Rights advocates of all groups. So, I’m being vague, yes, and deliberately so–but will just say there is a fear for many that history is repeating itself. With that said, I just want to ask all Obama supporters to keep him in your thoughts if not religious, and prayers if you are.

  4. Racism is ignorance and cowardice, this is America and that means freedom, and freedom is the responsibility of all citizens to respect and suffer their neighbors, commanding a particularly lofty level of behavior from ALL involved. This style of ideology is found nowhere in Obama’s empty promises or rhetorical and acrid vocal flatulence. Any reference in Obama’s speeches concerning societal inequities are always about the racially motivated abuses by public officials forty or fifty years ago, while he say’s nothing about today’s veritable police state, that is installing cameras everywhere and employing jack-booted thugs ensconced in black storm-trooper uniforms, to beat up women and spray babies with tear gas, attacking the entire nation’s populous on a daily basis.


  1. How Does Senator Obama Deal with Overt and Covert Racist Attacks?

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