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.