Media Denials of Racism: Sad Reactions to a Great Victory

Well, as predicted numerous white and other pundits in the mass media are using this election to do what they do best–that is to deny that there is still significant U.S. racism. The Wall Street Journal even calls on Obama to lead this effort:

While Mr. Obama lost among white voters, as most modern Democrats do, his success is due in part to the fact that he also muted any politics of racial grievance. We have had in recent years two black Secretaries of State, black CEOs of our largest corporations, black Governors and Generals — and now we will have a President. One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. Mr. Obama has a special obligation to help do so.

The intensity of this white denial should be a dead giveaway that there is something going on just beneath the surface, like the continuing white-racist framing of society and discriminatory actions. (And the irony is lost on the writer too, as he/she admits that whites did not vote in the majority for Obama.) Even as African Americans are collectively celebrating a great victory against U.S. racism—one they can best understand and feel–only a minority of whites are also celebrating the victory (and usually with a different historical experience to bring to that celebration) and numerous whites in media are denying now that there is any significant racism left.

However, against this backdrop, a summer 2008 USA Today/Gallup poll of nearly 2000 adults finds that even a bare majority (51 percent) of white Americans still admit there is widespread racial discrimination targeting African Americans. The proportions among Americans of color agreeing there is widespread discrimination against African Americans are substantially higher– some 59 percent of Latinos and 78 percent of black Americans. The report notes

Americans also see racial discrimination as a major or minor factor in four specific problems facing the black community — lower average education levels for U.S. blacks, lower average income levels for U.S. blacks, lower average life expectancies for blacks, and a higher percentage of blacks serving time in U.S. prisons.

Not surprisingly, thus,

On all four issues, blacks are more likely than whites and Hispanics to see racial discrimination as a major factor. In fact, a majority of blacks say racial discrimination is a major reason each problem is occurring. Whites are more inclined to view racial discrimination as a minor reason in three of the four areas, but a plurality of 44% of whites believe it is a major factor in higher prison rates for blacks.

Assessing the implications, Gallup can only manage to add this:

As on most issues involving race in the United States, blacks are much more likely to see racism as a problem than are whites.

Could it be because they are daily targets of subtle, blatant, and covert racial discrimination? How quaint and feeble is this Gallup analysis? And Gallup finishes up, like most such assessments, with an optimistic and also quaint note:

However, other questions in the poll showed that Americans remain optimistic that race relations could improve, if Americans could hold an open national dialogue on race and if Barack Obama were elected as the first black president. (I blogged on some of these optimism items this summer.)

At least the latter happened. Now is there any chance for a national dialogue on race? Probably not. And it is indeed time for the media pundits like those at the WSJ to start paying attention to the empirical data like the large Gallup poll: Even a bare majority of whites think racial discrimination is still a serious problem in the United States.


  1. Mordy

    As i posited in a previous comment, i think the majority of whites are celebrating this achievement. Paradoxically, even those who disgracefully maligned him in the run-up to the election. The list is long, but includes Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan and Michele Bachmann to name but a few. But to your point, at least in the case of Michele Bachmann, she concurrently claims that “his victory a tremendous signal we sent” and ““I have not seen the United States as a racist nation.” It is worth noting that her district is 96% white. But if she doesn’t see America as a racist nation then exactly what signal does she think we have sent? After all, tall men from Illinois have already been elected president. I actually see the white celebratory piling-on as a bigger problem than the continuing white racist frame. In the former (like the incredibly misinformed Michelle Bachmann) we are rejoicing over something without any apparent understanding of what it is. In the latter, it is just business as usual. Outside of the critically important tenet of HOPE to the black and brown americans, will white americans realize anything historically, sociologically and culturally meaningful?

  2. Will, i take your point. I think in the broadest sense any white interpretation and re-casting of the unfolding events by definition is a white-racial frame. The point i am trying to accentuate is that this celebratory piling on (that i perceive) is opposed to Joe’s observation that only a minority or whites are celebrating the victory.

  3. Melissa

    Well, at least a (bare) majority of Whites can see there is still racism. That’s a starting place rather than them not acknowledging it. Around where I live it seems to have gotten worse since Obama won. People are more open with their racism.

  4. GDAWG

    Actually Melissa, that they are more open abouth their racism is good. It should be brought out into the open. Lets you know where they and you stand. As such, you then can then act accordingly. hehe

  5. In addition to the WSJ asking President Elect Obama to lead the effort to trumpet “the myth of racism”, The Washington Post is calling for him to be a racial healer. A demand that should have been made upon every president (at least the Washington Post’s assertion). I guess 2 wars, an epic economic disaster and the fallout from one of the most brutally managed 8-year reign of ineptidude isn’t enough.

  6. M.

    The WSJ’s reaction is the predictable right-wing reaction. What surprises me about the polls cited is that the racial gaps in perception of discrimination aren’t bigger. While it is only a bare majority, still a majority (51%) of whites see discrimination as widespread. Only a slightly larger share of Latinos see it as widespread (59%). And more than 20% of African-Americans don’t describe discrimination as widespread. That’s more similarity in answers to this question across racial groups than I would have guessed there would be.

  7. Melissa

    GDAWG: Well, yeah, but it makes me sad because I’ve lost respect for some of the people I know or work with because of their racism. I mean, they must know it’s wrong because they have kept those opinions hidden for years.

  8. Joe

    Mordy, good point. Obama is now saddled with “healing,” an idea floating around lots of places. Notice that the language of white racism uses terms like this, to get off the subject of reparations for the racist structures and a racist system rationalized by a white racist framing. This latter kind of language and thinking is thus banned, which means once again a denial of the systemic realities. One cannot heal a racist hierarchy, one dismantles it and replaces it.

  9. GDAWG

    I dunno Melissa. Being prejudice is one thing. Being racist is quite another IMHO. People can have what you would consider racist feeling. But its ‘their’ feeling. If they are not a in a position of power to enact those feeling in a negative way on the target of those feelings then, IMHO, it’s simply prejudice. And lord knows we all have some measure of prejudice in us. Some of us feel that racism is most measure or made evil by those in positions to hurt folks in an unduly and unjust fashion based on their prejudiced feeling alone. This is bad. Holding your prejudice feelings to yourself and not embolding or enabling bad feeling and actions onto the target of one’s warped views is quite another thing altogether. I’m just saying. It’s life in all of its complexities.

  10. @GDAWG- I dunno G, that sounds like a pretty tortured explanation to me. It sounds like by your logic none of the despicable creatures who carry out hate crimes are ever racist if they are occupying a low and powerless rung of society. If you think you are superior to another human being based on your skin color you are racist. It seems pretty straight forward in that regard. I grant that the issue becomes much more complicated and subtle, but i never considered power as a defining characteristic of racism

  11. GDAWG

    Well Mordy that’s your view. To expand on your notion that “none of the despicable creatures who carry out hate crimes are ever racist if they are occupying a low and powerless rung of society” for me is true for they are mere mindless dangerous fodder whose white skin has been,heretofore, largely an ‘asset’ of sort in terms of or in the sense of being awarded unearned priviledge. That is, puppets in a larger scheme of divide and conquer, that is at play, even among whites. As such, to make the ‘priviledge’ worthy for attainment they, the lowly and stupid, are enabled by institutional forces, at least historically, to manifest a kind of ‘tenant’ power, dangerously. That is, they don’t really have true power but are allotted it, a measure of power, for convenience sake, to carry out a sacrificial offering,e.g, murders, lynchings, etc.

    But oh boy. Things are a changin.

  12. Melissa

    GDAWG & mordy: The people I work with, unfortunately, are in a relative position of power. They are in management. Our hourly workforce is probably 85% Black, but management is mainly white males. The way people are talking makes me wonder if it’s not racism that is causing the disparity between hourly and management workers. We have some very intelligent, hard working people who are hourly workers. They are at the highest position they can be as an hourly worker with some degree of supervision over others, yet they are not promoted to management, even though we have had openings at the next level up.

    And I don’t really think there is a differene between prejudice and racism. They both are a view that you are superior to another group because of your race (or, in the case of prejudice, some other factor).

  13. Everyone is entitled to their opinion G, i just can’t logically understand the delineation you are trying to make. Do the murderers of James Byrd escape your tag of racism because they were powerless tools of ‘tenant power’? 2 were avowed, active White Supremists. Does that confer power onto them in your view? My guess is that neither were Vice-Presidents at their local Texas National Bank branch, but in my view it would be nearly impossible to meet 2 people any more racist.

  14. Shari

    One of the things I found interesting and frankly promising in Obama’s campaign rhetoric is that he transferred the argument to a class argument. Conservatives caught on and retaliated with “socialist” labels. If Obama continues to prioritize class as a category and backs it up with policy, he actually can make a material difference in the lives of people of color. Expecting Barack Obama to “heal” the racial divide is another White Racial Frame tactic to place the responsibility for the divide on those who had no place at the table when the dividing occurred. Typical. And it has the advantage of being able to blame any continued tension, which historically increases in times of war and economic crisis, on a failure of Obama to heal it. Again, business as usual, blame the victims.

  15. GDAWG

    My view is that those losers in Jasper were empowered by a contemptous media and policing structure, as examples, that dehumanzies Blacks to such an extent so as to allow such pathology to prevail in the violent way it did in Jasper. That they, the murderers, would or could have the notion to perpetrate such crime, with an utter disregard for his humanity, is in my view, is an example of “tenent-power” or faux power. (Cannon Fodder) Another example of the “tenant power” would folks who voted for McCain and Palin who earned less than 200,000 per year.
    Finally, perhaps they, the Jasper murderers, were not VPs of the local bank but they were probably VPs in the aryan nation or some other similar group. Again no real social power at least from a legal or civil perspective but does display a type of “tenant power” Or put it another way. They all, as a result of his murder, earned their Spider’s Web.” This is an elite group indeed! Shari. Excellent!

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