Finally Seeing the White Elephant in the Room

It is interesting now that Senator Obama is not doing as well in numerous polls, with McCain leading in several and ahead now in the electoral vote estimates, some writers are talking about the “Bradley effect” and beginning to make arguments, albeit with less data, that I have made for many months now. They still seem afraid to call this the “white racism” effect, which it actually is, but at least a few are beginning to raise the issue. (Photo: Tashland) Yet, they still do not understand just how uphill Senator Obama’s struggle really is. And they are not discussing at all the impact and significance, especially for African Americans, of a loss.

In a recent (September 25, 2008) New York Review of Books, Andrew Hacker argues a modest version of my argument about racist barriers under the vague title, “Obama: The Price of Being Black.”

After some initial discussion of voting barriers and other matters, as part of reviewing a publication on voting, he finally gets to the central problem for Senator Obama:

I’ve been careful so far not to use the word “racism.” The term itself has become an obstacle to understanding. Once white people hear it, they tend to freeze, and start listing reasons why it doesn’t apply to them. After all, most Americans admire Oprah Winfrey, like Tiger Woods, and respect Colin Powell. Yet racism persists, albeit not publicly voiced, especially in the belief that one’s own is a superior strain.

Wow! Here is one of the important analysts of “race” in the U.S., in his past work, using rare examples (which whites see as “exceptions to their race”) and backing off from calling racism what it actually is and accenting it front and center. Of course, even the word “racism” offends a great many whites. They do not wish to face the underlying reality of racial oppression in this society.
Then Hacker buys into “whites are now less racist” argument:

… not many whites regard Barack Obama as their inferior; effete or arrogant perhaps, but they don’t fault him on intellect. To some, indeed, he may seem too much the intellectual. Resentment of perceived black privilege is also involved, as we have seen with respect to affirmative action, and even fear of some kind of racial payback. Over half of a largely white sample told a Rasmussen poll that they feel Obama continues to share at least some of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s positions on America.

Of course, many whites see Obama as their inferior, their racial inferior on numerous dimensions. And the poll cited makes that very clear. A white majority think Dr. Wright was a “dangerous black man” who “hates America,” and that is certainly inferiority for a great many whites. This hostile view of Black men, by the way, is nearly 400 years old now in this country, yet scholars and analysts seem reluctant to even call it out. Then Hacker cites polls:

… in an ABC News /Washington Post poll in June, 20 percent of the whites who responded said a candidate’s race would factor heavily in their vote, while 30 percent admitted to feelings of racial prejudice. If the Bradley Effect was at work, as many as one third of the voters may count race as important.

We see in the polls just how huge the barrier is for Obama, for presidential candidates usually win by less that 8 or so percentage points. A good point, but Hacker’s analysis seems very odd–that is, for a leading social scientist of racial issues like him not to pay attention in an important review for the general public to the substantial research data which show quite clearly that a majority of whites today, including a majority of young well-educated whites, still think and talk in very racist, blatantly racist terms, about African Americans.

Moreover, when I engaged in a long discussion with numerous otherwise savvy sociologists about the Obama presidential campaign over at the Contexts blog, I was the only one to discuss and consider these data on white racist thinking as likely blocking his election. Almost all there thought he would probably be elected. The other discussants seemed to think the data I cited about the extensiveness and impact of the white racial frame on white voters and voting can be more or less ignored–and generally moved on to discuss the significance of the black presidency.

Whites are not part of some “new racism,” for it is the same old racism of four hundred years. And why are the social science data on how deeply racist in their thinking a majority of white Americans still are, being so ignored even by social scientists discussing the Obama campaign? I predict that many social scientists will eventually have to face and analyze openly the deep US foundation of white racism between now and what seems like November’s increasingly likely loss for Senator Obama. (The Republican 527 attacks are just beginning again, and are trying to tie Obama again and again to the negative images of the old white racial frame. More are doubtless coming.)

Again, in my view the only way to stop that loss is for many people in his campaign and the media to take on and highlight the deep hidden racist thinking that lies behind many whites being so comfortable with McCain — and, most importantly, to accent aggressivly in every way possible, for white Americans in particular, the old liberty and justice frame this country claims to live by, but in fact does not. The only hope, as I see it, is to somehow get whites to listen “to their better angels.”


  1. GDAWG

    Joe, excellent insight into this election cycle racial dynamics. But to add to the insanity of it all, I just watched Greenspan saying that the economy is in a virtual melt-down and, as such, cannot take another tax break, ala Bush’s, and to be continued by McSame, because of the dire state of our economy. With this in mind, I’m wondering if the anti-Black racial animus among whites, you have documented, is so strong among that these folks that they would rather ” shoot themselves further in the economic foot” by electing McS and Palin?

  2. Milt

    This is interesting. While white racism is a powerful force, I wonder if it is as all-pervasive as this post claims. A few questions:
    1. This post leaves me scratching my head about how Obama could have ever defeated Senator Clinton, Joe Biden, and the other contenders for the Democratic nomination. If white racism is as overwhelming and influences voting as powerfully as this post claims, then how could Obama ever have won mostly white states like Iowa in the Democratic primaries?
    2. This post makes a pretty strong prediction about the election. I’ll be very curious to see how you reassess your position if Obama wins.
    3. How should Obama discuss the racism issue? I think that if Obama were to directly give a speech that too much focused on white racism, it would play into Republican attempts to define him as a grievance-centered, angry black man and cost him votes. Honestly, I think on the race issue for Obama, the most effective strategy is to mostly not talk about it, except perhaps briefly as part of some broader moral call for judging individuals by the content of their character.

  3. Joe Author

    all very good questions. I will try to blog on them soon. In the meantime, think about it. He barely won in the Democratic primaries, and with only 40 percent of the liberal white vote there. If you include all white voters in all Dem. and Rep. primaries who have voted so far, 75 percent voted for white candidates. He clearly has a white problem, made worse by the new resurgence of the Repubs.

    I am only pessimistic if progressives do little to counter the barely concealed racism. Ignoring it only makes it worse. White progressives buy into the colorblind voters mythology almost as much as conservatives. It is false, a con. For a majority of white voters will vote their old and deep racial interests unless you force them to face their racist views and reframe to the liberty and justice frame. Both are difficult options, but ignoring the deep racist framing guarantees a loss–if McCain runs the typical Repub. campaign and stays healthy.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Quickly, I am still highly optimistic—mainly because I keep the tube off and limit my incoming information regarding the candidates to my own preferred sources. But also, Obama’s campaign is operating out of a monstrous grassroots movement and still growing as we speak, picking up voters that are generally invisible. I am still seeing formerly right biased folks down here jumping into the Obama camp who did not vote in the primaries, along with other folks who were in favor of Obama during the primaries but did not vote for a variety of different reasons.

    One of the points I wanted to quickly make is that there are many who still wish to get registered or update their information with the voting registration so they can vote in their local precincts but don’t have time as they work during day hours, etc. Anybody interested in knowing how they can help with this can do many things. They can become “deputized” and register people, get the forms and provide stamped addressed envelopes, direct them to websites that will allow them to download the forms, etc. (I have done the last two for people in other states) People who want to vote in the November election need to know their state laws with relation to registering, if they are noted as being in the Republican or Independent camp and wish to vote in the Democratic this time around to get that changed if it applies to the state, updating addresses, etc. In Texas, the deadline to register or update information for the November election is October 3rd and either do it directly with the voter’s registration office in person, somebody who’s deputized, or send the form back directly to the voter’s registration office—do not go through the DnV or other outfit for reasons I will not share here. Time is running out and we all have to work hard now to ensure our future has a positive outcome, not just for us, but our many several generations to come. And I have to give a sincere “cheers” to the Obamacans down here, as well as all Obama supporters. Texas will be an interesting state to watch during the election…at least I think. I say keep up the hope and hard work.

  5. Thanks Joe, excellent analysis of the “changing same” that is that white elephant. Those who think that racism is decreasing in America bring to mind another animal metaphor, that big ol’ head-in-the-sand bird.

    Milt, your numbered points are helpful, but I see in them an answer to your own claim that white racism isn’t as entrenched as Joe’s post says it is. You note that despite being black, Obama has won in all sorts of white places. But then you basically ask how Obama could address racism directly without fulfilling the scary (to many whites) role of “angry black man.” Your latter point acknowledges that which your former point denies–that Obama can only appeal to many white voters by convincing them that he’s not “really black,” and thus that racism is still a powerful threat to his chances of becoming president.

    You seem to say on the one hand that racism has decreased to the point that Obama can win in largely white places, but on the other, you acknowledge that he has to transcend his blackness to do so. We’re seeing now that yes, he has managed to convince a lot of white voters that their deep-set racial fears of a black president aren’t realistic in his case (because his blackness is seen as only, and supposedly, coincidental to who he is, and so he’s not seen as the scary black man of their nightmares). However, he can’t keep transcending his blackness like that–he won’t be allowed to, and not only by Republicans.

  6. JDF

    Absolutely on point, Joe. I think sociologists, e.g. those involved in the discussion over at Contexts, have been affected by the media coverage of the election process (as we all have to a certain degree). This talk about “horse race” and the current failure of media to criticize these racist ads of the McCain campaign, choosing instead to frame the campaign as a “tit-for-tat” race, as if Obama is hitting McCain as hard as McCain is hitting him, and in the meanwhile, practically everyone is falling over backwards to deny racism as a major issue in this election.

  7. I think that many white conservatives are not opposed to Obama because he’s black ; they just
    disapprove of his liberal views and
    what he stands for, just as they are not opposed to Hillary because she is a woman but because of her politics.
    If Obama were a conservative republican, adamantly opposed to a woman’s right to choose an
    abortion, gay rights, gun control,
    and a an evangelical with ties to
    the religious right and opposed to teaching evolution in schools,
    conservatives would be wildly enthusiastic about him.

  8. Milt

    In response to “macon d”: On this point it gets to be unhelpful to group all forms of anti-black racism together, in my opinion. Although many forms of racism are alive and well, the blanket will-never-vote-for-a-black-man-no-matter-what form has, in my view, declined over the past 50 years. Obama’s success attests to that. No one seriously thinks anyone like him could have ever gotten the nomination of a major party in 1960. Saying that Obama needs to convince white voters that he is not “really” black invokes a notion of blackness that I don’t subscribe to: I don’t think being black necessarily implies holding any set of beliefs. But Obama does need to be careful that he avoids fitting into certain stereotypical categories of blackness that whites have deeply negative views of. That’s a different form of racism that remains very strong. Avoiding fitting into stereotypic categories is something he has done very well and is one of his particular skills as a politician.

  9. It seems relevant, once again to point out that only 36 of the 2,380 delegates seated on the convention floor are black, the lowest number since the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies began tracking diversity at political conventions 40 years ago. No one can say that if a ” [Black Nominee running for president] were a conservative republican, adamantly opposed to a woman’s right to choose an abortion, gay rights, gun control, and a an evangelical with ties to the religious right and opposed to teaching evolution in schools, conservatives would be wildly enthusiastic about him. Why? Because there hasn’t been one yet! And with the Republican party trending to white exclusivity, it doesn’t seem like it could happen anytime soon.

  10. Seattle in Texas

    Oh Lordy. Robert, I heavily disagree with your first point–but strongly agree with your last point (they love tokens). And a clarification with my post above relating to the Obamacans…there aren’t many “massive numbers” so far as I can tell, but my hat does go off to those that have crossed at least for the time being and throughout at least this election. As of for both conservatives and some “liberals”(?), yes, race plays a key role–for some “Democrats” beyond what Obama stands for, which is what they formerly claimed to embrace and value…go figure. Regardless, I think there is much to be hopeful for, for a vareity of reasons. We have many beautiful and hopeful folks sitting among the lowest ranks, waiting to voice their presence through their votes in November, of which many have either never done before or have not done in many years due to political corruption and manipulation of various forms, etc. I do know that conversations about racism and Obama do take place at the personal levels between supporters and with those who have questions about the campaign, etc. He couldn’t have beat Hillary if they didn’t. Much belaboring clarification relating to the Dr. Wright incident (to name one), and still taking place. I think Obama knows what he’s doing as he has made it this far. And why do some white folks support him? Not only because they support his political positions, but also they believe he genuinely cares about each American, including them and the nation as a whole, as well as the world. That is very powerful. He’s not allowing divisions to form between his supporters, and his supporters are not allowing that to happen either. Just my thoughts.

  11. Seattle in Texas

    Mordy, I like your point (and GDAWG’s as well). but I was thinking about the last point I had said I strongly agreed with–I think they (and definitely not “all”) would only like it for primaries at most–mainly for show or otherwise, not out of anything genuine.

  12. Joe

    Excellent discussion, thanks. A key to Obama’s “success” with the 25 percent of whites who have voted for him in all primaries (taken together) so far is that many of these moderate/liberal whites see him as “an exception to his race,” as not like the typical Black men. The way the Republicans will work is to increasingly tie him to other Black men, so he is no longer the exception. Only attacking racism frontally gives him a chance, with an appeal to whites liberty and justice values. And that is a long shot, of course.

  13. Seattle in Texas

    An exception to many in white communities he is…and the Blue states will state Blue nonetheless. And I know down here, it would be tough to pull the wool over the eyes of Obama supporters regardless of which camp they most identify with….The question is, will the increased voters this time around (which I think will be significant) be enough to make a difference for the win–combined with the Clinton supporters who are supporting Obama, etc.? Only time will tell.

    But I love this. Mordy, I had to come back and ask, is there any way you could tell us what the number of African American delegates sent to Denver from just Texas alone were? Then can we compare that number to the entire number that was sent to Republican convention? 😀

  14. thomas volscho

    I have the data from one of the CNN/Wash Post polls done in June and another CNN done in July.

    There was a question on whether current Obama supporters “may change mind” and I analyzed it by “race” as a “quick and dirty” means of assessing the “Bradley Effect”.

    I found that roughly 28% of “whites” currently planning to vote for Obama indicated they may change their mind and not vote for him compared to about 10% of African Americans.

    There is a RACISM-BLIND literature in political science on the “Bradley Effect” that you can find in Google Scholar.

  15. @ Seattle in Texas- The comparison of black delegates at the DNC to those at the RNC is stark. 24.5 percent of the delegates at last week’s Democratic convention were African-American, according to the Democratic National Committee. That translated to 1,087 black delegates. Other relevant figures cited in the same article point out that … [that the] 1.5 percent of the 2,380 total delegates is a sharp drop from 2004, when there were 167 black delegates, 6.7 percent of that year’s total.

  16. Seattle in Texas

    Mordy, thank you. Might you know the number of alternates? I did not have time to look into this. In terms of further commentary on this, let me with hold for now. Thank you much again

  17. Seattle in Texas

    I am going to see if I can get a good explanation for this. I assume the number for Latino, LGBT, etc. are also under-represented? But for now I will throw out my own thoughts just for fun. The majority of positions in the party that were filled at least in my immediate senate and perhaps those surrounding outside of Harris County, were by white folks. These positions (only few actually) at least the higher ones, guarenteed a spot as a delegate at the national convention. From there, well anybody can look this up. But as I understand it, before the primaries there were numerous empty slots. One of the issues addressed was the need for more African American and Latino voters to become involved and fill the vacant slots–which, to my knowledge, has been done. They are all, including the former folks, hard at work. Thus, I suspect if the TDP continues to stabalize and grow, the future representation of the state delegates representing demographics of Texas should hopefully be more on target? My attempt (definitely not excuse here…I admit the Democratic Party in general needs serious help…but, with Obama/Biden significant changes within the party can be made…so not giving up hope) to explain this…and it’s not even a good explanation considering I think many understood the Affirmative Action figures would be met unless there were not enough folks in the categories to meet them, is that prior to this election perhaps the majority of folks in the party and in higher positions(?) were white…. Hmmmm…. However, I won’t share the however’s here as they just lead to more questions and tapping of the finger tips…. Nonetheless, I do still believe Texas is definitely a state to watch and all democrats in Texas need to keep up the hard work…changes can’t be made with out it….

  18. Seattle in Texas

    I wanted to come back and report that Texas exceeded their threshhold for delegates they sent to Denver. The goal for African American representation was 54% and it turned out to be 67%. 75 elected were elected, 8 unpledged superdelegates, and this is not including committee members. The goal for Latino delegates was 72% and they got 78%. There were 68 elected, 10 superdelegates, and others not including committee members. They exceeded their goal for LGBT–they were hoping to get 14 to 18, and sent 19 to Denver. The only goal not met was for folks with disabilities where only 13 delegates from this group were sent. Did not get the numbers for alternates. Go Texas Democratic Party! There is a very good possibility Texas is going Blue this year… 🙂


  1. RacismReview: Finally Seeing the White Elephant in the Room « Stop Dog Whistle Racism!

Leave a Reply