Obama Using White Racial Frame to Further Campaign?

Tensions increased this week as Bill O’Reilly and Fox News publicized Jesse Jackson’s comments about Obama, “talking down to black people.” Some may argue that this criticism along with Jackson’s other comments will hurt Obama’s popularity and harm his campaign for the presidency. However, in his recent article entitled “Jackson’s ‘Crude’ Remarks May Give Boost to Obama,” John Salant argues just the opposite. As the title implies, Salant believes this divide with Jackson will help Obama in November. In the article, Salant quotes public policy professor Mark Rozell of George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia concerning Obama’s speech to members of a large black church in Chicago on Father’s day in which he condemned black fathers:

Obama’s effort to present himself as an advocate of responsible personal behavior, a position that Republican candidates like to secure as uniquely their own.

This embodies the common stereotype long entrenched in the white racial frame and replicated for hundreds of years in this country that portrays whites as having “family values” and depicts blacks in a very negative and immoral light. In addition to illustrating Obama as being strong on responsible personal behavior and family values, this incident distances Jackson, a longtime black leader in politics, from Obama. Jackson has been portrayed for decades as a “dangerous black man,” another common feature of the white racial frame (see Systemic Racism and Two-Faced Racism ). In distancing himself from Jackson, Obama lessens the chance of also being portrayed using this common archetype. Salant goes on in the article to quote social science professor Steffen Schmidt from Iowa State University, who comments:

Cynics are asking if Jackson made this comment on purpose to help Obama.

This incident and the reactions of the media and general public suggest that when Obama’s behavior and comments come from the white racial frame, his popularity increases. Does this mean that in order to win the white vote, Obama will have to distance himself from black voters? It does, according to David Schultz of Hamline University who is also quoted in the article, saying:

Obama should give Jackson and O’Reilly an award for helping his campaign.

The theme of pitting white voters against black voters is a common one in American politics. And, during this election it puts Obama in a difficult position. It also reveals the extent to which white-on-black racism still occurrs. The outcome in November will reveal, among many other things, whether Obama’s embodiment of the highly treasured ideals of the white racial frame did in fact benefit his campaign.

~ Hannah is an advanced undergraduate student at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. She will be guest blogging with us on some of her research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe


  1. Interesting analysis of the situation, and I agree with the idea that the current situation may have positive results but I hesitate to agree with the political analysis that this was orchestrated or was a strategic political decision. This seems to parallel the criticism that Senator Obama is facing from the left and in particular the liberal commentators and bloggers, in which they are criticizing him for moving to the center and making political decisions and not remaining a purely liberal candidate. I thought that Jack White’s article on TheRoot.com had an excellent analysis of the situation with Jessie Jackson.

    Excellent blog Hannah, I am looking forward to more…

    When The Man is One of Us – By Jack White

  2. curious

    Hannah, nice piece. You are spot on when you write: “when Obama’s behavior and comments come from the white racial frame, his popularity increases.” Since Obama can take the Black vote for granted he has space to give speeches that
    deploy the white racial frame by focusing solely on personal responsibility of Black men and ignoring the context of racial discrimination. Obama is both riding and contributing to the myth of a post-racial America.

  3. curious

    In reponse to Liberaltexan — Obama has never been a liberal in practice, nor has he been an advocate of racial justice policies. Jesse Jackson is decidedly to the right of MLK and Obama is decidedly to the right of Jesse Jackson. People who support Obama should do so on the basis of who is actually is and what he actually does, not on what they wish he would be.

  4. As a Senator Obama supporter: I supporter Obama for who he is, what he does, and what he stands for. I know that Obama will make politically motivated decisions, and as a liberal and a Democrat I feel that one of the most important goals is for him to win. The alternative is unacceptable.

  5. Joe M.

    On this critique of Obama using the white racial frame, couldn’t we say the same thing about Jackson – his call for castration emanating from the stereotype of the hypersexual black man? I may be naive, but I always saw Obama’s rhetoric as engaging the white racial frame as opposed to using it. If the White racial frame is an obdurant social fact, like many sociologists think it is, and most Whites see race through this frame, if you want to talk with Whites about race than you are going to have to concede some rhetorical ground and address it in a way they understand before you move the dialogue to a more fair frame. I also question if its right to call the rift between Jackson and Obama as Obama distancing himself from Black voters. Many many contemporary Black people in the U.S. are wary of, cynical toward, or at least tired of Jackson. In my view, the nature and tone of Jackson’s comment support an interpretation that this is more about Jackson’s personal jealousy and a generational power struggle than Obama’s rhetorical style.

  6. curious

    Joe, yes, Jackson’s castration comment does play to a white racial frame. It also plays to a masculinist frame as well. Moreover, I’m not defending the rhetoric, tone or choice of words in Jackson’s comments at all. And I agree that many Black people do not support Jackson. And yet, it is a mistake to ignore or downplay important features of Obama’s politics so the liberal-left can have something to cheer for this election cycle. For example, the claim that Obama must first engage the white racial frame is necessary before you can move the dialogue to a “more fair” frame is akin to the accomodationist approach to racism taken by Booker T. Washington.

    It is also a mistake to attribute this conflict to the internal attitudes of one individual (Jackson). The substance of the Jackson-Obama conflict is much wider than individual personalities and involves a serious disagreement over how we should explain the problems faced by African Americans. Obama’s speech that Jackson was criticizing blamed the problems of the Black family on the moral failings of individual Black men. And yet: “Significantly, racist practices by whites were not mentioned as an important reason for any of these troubling social conditions” (Feagin 2000: 95). “These blaming-the-victim views have been regularly resuscitated among the white elites and passed along to ordinary Americans as a way of explaining the difficult socioeconomic conditions faced by Black Americans (Feagin 2000: 95). Obama is deploying an ideological frame which Feagin has characterized as “culturalist racism” in his book Racist America. In this and many other cases Obama plays to the white racial frame far more than he challenges it.

  7. mgs

    Obama is a long-time member of an African American church known for a focus on self-empowerment and taking personal responsibility. This seems perfectly in line with that philosophy.

  8. mgs

    I just reread my post and noticed it is missing some important info: by “this” I am referring to Obama’s speech critical of black father absenteeism.

    I’ve noticed that the authors of this blog have mixed feelings about Jeremiah Wright’s teachings. On the one hand Reverend Wright said all kinds of provocative things that you’ve defended, and on the other hand there is the church’s focus on accountability and individual responsibility. I can’t imagine any such statement calling for personal accountability being greeted with anything but derision on this blog for its implicit use of the white racial frame.


  1. racismreview.com » Blog Archive » Black Voters Still Taken for Granted

Leave a Reply