racism review

People are going to be annoyed with me for saying this out loud, but, whatever: If Obama wins, what are those folks going to say who donned their hat of sociological expertise and declared that America was nowhere near ready to elect a Black president? Lots of people made statements like this privately in the time preceding Obama winning the nomination, including some people I know who expressed this as a proto-self-fulfilling-prophecy reason for not being eager to support Obama in the primaries.

Consider also, for instance, a couple blog-quotes from a former American Sociological Association president:

1. (April 2008) Since Obama could never win any way, because of the high level of white racist thinking about black men (polls show him at only 37 percent of white voters vs. McCain), I tend to think that the heroic Dr. Wright speaking out is a good thing, esp. since he is one of our outstanding thinkers on the morality of race and racism.

2. (June 2008) It is my educated guess that this 26 percent of whites is likely the minimum percentage of whites who will actually vote against Senator Obama in November just because he is Black.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

34 thoughts on “racism review”

  1. A great point. I do have to say, though, that teaching race will be a heck of a lot more difficult. The students who claim that we are in a post-race world will have one huge trump card, “Yeah. But we have a Black president!”

    By contrast, the gender teacher can be triumphant. “We can talk as much as we want about gender equality, but one thing’s for sure: we’ve never had a woman in the highest political office. Blacks, who were enslaved for much of the nations history and oppressed for still more make up a paltry 14% of the population. And there is a Black president. Women, who are 50% of the nation and legitimate political participants for far longer still have yet to enjoy this honor!”


  2. Fear and hope intertwine, don’t they? And dichotomous thinking. Either things are terrible and immutable or they are wonderful. No middle ground. And we do the same thing when we imagine our students or the people we disagree with. Truth is that the Black-White divide is a huge chasm AND that a lot of white folks have the good will to want it to go away and would be open to learning about how to help make that happen. It is hard stuff.

    I know what you mean, Shakha, and know you said it on purpose, but just to make the “All the women are white, all the minorities are men” point (which I know was your point), the “women” should say “Non-black women who are 43% . . . “


  3. That fivethirtyeight post is ridiculously badly sourced considering its assertions. I get very tired of how reporters and bloggers can throw out pretty much any third-hand story that makes working-class rural people look like idiots and people will eat it up.


  4. Those folks tend to hang their hats on more overt/concious forms of racism in society. Maybe they’ll convert to the Bonilla-Silva school?

    Answer #2: See the intellectual course of William Julius Wilson’s works from the late 70’s to recently.

    Answer #3: Hey, we’re not weathermen!


  5. This relates to Philip Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How do we know? Social science experts, especially those at the ideological extreme, are terrible at predicting events. And when their predictions fail, they tend to create some reason why their predictions really didn’t fail. I suppose we’ll have talk of Barack Obama as the token black president. And, given that Obama appears to be more of a centrist democrat (judging from Audacity of Hope), he might govern that way, and then radicals will be dissatisfied and will come up with some explanation that explains how Obama is merely the tool of the white male rich.

    I think there is probably a negative correlation between predictability of predictions and the accuracy of those predictions.


  6. I should add to the comment above that it makes sense that some radical scholars of race refuse to acknowledge progress in racial understanding. If most of one’s scholarship is oriented around a problem that has declined in significance, then one can experience an identity crisis. I think there is serious problem with scholars binding themselves to a theory, rather than a methodological orientation. Someone who simply identifies themselves and their research with the analysis of data and a broad theoretical orientation can more easily shift to incorporate new evidence. Those who identify themselves with a particular theory face enormous costs when contrary evidence shows up, as it usually does.


  7. @11: The notion of color-blind racism has always been, I feel, a useful framework for discussing how racism is not always of the overt or even intentional variety.

    Color-blind and also institutional forms as well, I suppose.

    I suppose my point was that there’s plenty of frameworks for understanding racism that, should the polls hold and Feagin’s claims be disproven, it’s damaging to how he argues racism, but not sociological notions on the whole. Not in the slightest.


  8. @8.daedalus: it is also quite possible that the theory is right and the election of Obama constitutes an exception. No social theory is right 100% of the time. Don’t be so quick to claim “identity crisis” instead of analyzing the pattern instead of the anecdote.


  9. @14: Andy, I appreciate your point, but if there is a “theory” out there that would lead to the “educated guess” that at least 26 percent of white voters would not vote for Obama “just because he’s black,” then I think it’s time adherents to that theory had an identity crisis and I hope the election results hold up and prompt one.

    As wrong as that wide-eyed undergraduate is who believes the US has moved beyond race and that racism is no longer an issue in the US, etc., she is way closer to being correct about this election than a sociology expert on racism who speculates that over a quarter of white voters are going to not vote for Obama just because he is black.

    (Incidentally, if there is some massive racially ugly swing in these last two weeks before the election, or if there is some massive discrepancy between the final polls and the actual vote percentages for Obama, then I will be revising the way I look at things.)


  10. Jeremy @15 & others, these issues are getting tense even at Scatterplot, which is pointing to how hard they are. Why is it so upsetting for someone to say that 25% of Whites won’t vote for a Black person “just because” he is Black? There are certainly some folks willing to tell TV cameras that. Whether it is 25% of the electorate, I don’t know, but it sure as heck isn’t 0%. And you definitely have tons of overtly racist and covertly race coded messages going out trying to fan racial or ethnic fears. I’ve seem the “Obama bucks” flyer all over the Internet (posted by Jessie on Oct 17 Racism Review ). That one was perpetrated by urban Californians who thought it was amusing and deny having any racial intentions. Sarajevo was a model of ethnic mixing and ethnic tolerance until politicians stirred it up and then it became a bloodbath. We are in denial if we think we don’t have ethnic tensions and racial/ethnic stereotypes and prejudices, but that does not mean we have to act on them. We can all rise above our fear and prejudice. And I mean all of us. I hear just as many bigoted and hostile statements coming out of the mouths of the urban educated elites as out of rural white people, they just have different targets. That’s why I share Jeremy’s expressed concern about the readiness of urbanites who think of themselves as race liberals to trash white working class or rural people or religious people. The fact is that all of us are all over the map about these issues. Nobody does anything “just because” of race, but that is not the same as saying that race does not affect us, both consciously and unconsciously. But if we can accept and interrogate those feelings of hostility and fear we can choose to act on our hopes, not our fears. That’s why I find Obama’s message so powerful, and that is probably why the people who are trying to defeat him have little else to draw on but to play to fears.

    I realize it was an N of 1 and anecdote is not the singular of data, but I do need to say that in North Carolina in the 1970s, I knew a white guy who used to be the head of the KKK who had changed sides and joined the mixed-race socialist coalition because he decided that the real issue was class. People do change. And I think it is wrong to believe that the worst thing you have ever said or done is somehow more essentially true about you than the best thing you have ever said or done. Again, everyone is a contradictory package of good and bad impulses.

    Joe’s latest statement, Oct 18, echoes a theme I’ve been seeing for years that has heated up since last spring, i.e. that educated professional Black people are seen as exceptions that do not challenge the stereotypes of and fear of poor Black youths. Many Black blogs are expressing concerns that election of a Black president could make it harder to work on race issues, because it would make Whites feel that his election proves there is no problem. This one, again, is all over the Black blogs. The sense I get from the Black people I talk to is great hope coupled with great fear.

    FYI Joe’s latest prediction has the white vote considerably closer: http://www.racismreview.com/blog/ “Even then, a majority of whites are still hard to persuade. A check of recent polls indicates that in this last week Research 2000 found that Senator Obama leads Senator McCain significantly among all registered voters, but is way behind among white voters (52-40 percent split in favor of McCain). Gallup shows less of a divide, but still a 48-44 percent white voter split in favor of McCain.”

    Sorry for going off. I have even more than this on mind, but it gets a little of it said. It has been an intense few weeks.


  11. Lots of people seem to be asking me this lately (or i find myself in conversations about it). My line has been like yours, OW — the so-called “Bradley effect” may not be 6% but it is FOR SURE not 0% and frankly we just don’t know (The 25% number seems very high – that’s interesting Jeremy). This is one reason not to get complacent about the polls – go vote.

    And, we tend to vote our self-interests. for a lot of people who are going broke right now and losing their jobs and houses, an elite African-American man who seems to be able to talk about the financial crisis with some expertise versus the white guy who admits he knows nothing about economics breaks in favor of the guy who might know what he is doing.

    As you say better than I could, OW, race is complicated. it has worked in lots of funny ways the whole election. Until America was in this ridiculous “crisis” he might not have had a chance — in other words, when American is “ready” is a moving target, but that has been true about a lot of firsts for white women and people of color making inroads into employment, education, and the like. I just hope we really are ready and see it in a couple of weeks!


  12. In the last two presidential elections, the white Democratic candidate has gotten around 45% of the white vote. Say you want to be generous and say a white candidate this time around would get 50% of the white vote. So 50% of whites do not vote for a white Democratic Presidential candidate. I personally think it is wildly, jawdroppingly implausible to imagine that, of the remaining 50%–the left side of electorate to begin with–half of them would be persuaded to vote against a candidate just because he’s black. It also doesn’t accord with things such as, e.g., Harold Ford’s narrow (3%) loss in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race.

    The “Bradley effect” is a different issue that has to do with polling–people saying they are undecided or will vote for Obama when really they will vote for McCain. In other words, it’s about the effect of racism on causing discrepancies between polls and actual results. Some people saw evidence of a Bradley effect in the New Hampshire primary, although the Obama campaign itself seems to blame the discrepancy on having been out-organized in getting out the vote there. In any case, for this, we will have great empirical evidence of seeing how the popular vote totals compare to the final polls.


  13. Good point, Jeremy. A case can be made that Obama’s “problem” is that he is a Democrat, not that he is Black. Can Republican voters bring themselves to vote Democratic? (As I’ve been noting in conversations lately, my spouse and I could have predicted 20 years ago that we’d be supporting the Democrat in this race.) But, then, a big chunk of the Republican base was created in the realignment of the 1960s when the Democrats became identified as the party that supported Black civil rights and the Republicans moved from their previous support of civil rights into the “Southern strategy” that played to white voters and made no attempt to attract black voters. Please note that I am not asserting that all Republican support is race-based, but a portion of it undeniably is, or at least was.


  14. I guess I think the “just because” thing is a red herring. I don’t think one has to channel Andy Abbott to note that race is inseparable from other effects, particularly within a single individual. Is it “just because” of race when it’s so easy to convince ignorant people that Obama is Muslim? When he has to go way further than anybody else would to disclaim Farrakhan et al.?

    I just read a comment on an ABC news site where one of our fine countrypeople wrote that if you look at Detroit and Africa you’ll see what an Obama presidency will be like because they’re both “run by blacks.”

    More optimistically, though: some chunk of the excitement generated by Obama is also race-based. Which is its own form of racism, perhaps?

    I agree w/ Jeremy that the so-called “Bradley Effect” is a distinct issue and I suspect will turn out to be pretty small indeed.


  15. Regarding Andrew’s third point, absolutely not. That people who’ve been oppressed and excluded would be excited by seeing a group member do well is hardly racist, any more than it was racist for Catholics to be excited by the election of Kennedy. Blacks have an excellent track record of voting for Whites who appear to support their interests, including voting into office White Democrats over Black Republicans or, in the case of Memphis, voting for a White Jew over a Black Democrat who ran an anti-Semitic campaign (Cohen vs Tinker in the August 2008 primary). See http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/aug/07/cohen-takes-early-lead-over-tinker-towns-jr/ Blacks stress that the majority of Blacks were initially backing Clinton, and they shifted their support only after Obama won Iowa and Clinton started making what was seen as racial claims to reach out to the white working class as she sought to regain momentum.

    Regarding Whites, it is very, very important in denouncing specific language or images that seem racist to not overgeneralize into implying that people with the same demographic characteristics necessarily endorse such language. Notice how McCain worked to turn a critique of specific racist statements Palin encouraged or tolerated at her rallies into the claim that all the people at his rallies were racist, a claim he then spent several minutes rebutting. He knows that over-generalizations of that kind play into his game, which is why they tend to blow up and magnify every critique that is made of them, because they are the ones that stand to gain with an us-them rhetoric.

    The reason Obama has to work harder to convince people that he isn’t Muslim than John Kerry did is that he has a Muslim name, for heavens sake. I mean, I can complain about the ignorance of Americans as much as the next person, and I am sensitive to racial overtones, but let’s get a grip. A lot of people in the 2004 election knew that GWB was a born-again Christian, but I did not know he was/is Methodist until it came up in a trivia game (I guessed Baptist), and I know a majority of Americans did not know Kerry was religious at all, much less knew he was Catholic, even though it actually was a pretty big issue in the campaign.


  16. A case can be made that Obama’s “problem” is that he is a Democrat, not that he is Black. Can Republican voters bring themselves to vote Democratic?

    At the risk of sounding jejune, there is some semi-serious evidence that about 20 to 25 percent of the contemporary electorate won’t vote for a Democrat under any circumstances. The right-wing crazification factor is a reasonably robust folk theorem to this effect that draws on the useful fact that Obama was elected to the Senate in a race against a black guy:

    Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgment. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That’s crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.


  17. Great post @ 17 from the always wise OW. Also, the cover story of yesterday’s NYT magazine does a nice job of covering the confluence of race, class, and political attitudes.

    Jeremy, if you’re going to criticize Joe for his predictions, you might want to revisit your own wildly off-base take on the race:

    Oy, the Republican presidential nominee I thought would be the toughest for the Democrats to beat chooses the Republican vice presidential nominee I thought would be the toughest for the Democrats to beat.

    Kind of takes the euphoric edge off watching my candidate give the best nomination speech of my lifetime. Maybe Palin will end up coming across as wildly inexperienced.


  18. Dave: I think I displayed ambivalence about Palin within hours in the comments thread of the very post you cite. (For that matter, I bring up the ‘wildly inexperienced’ issue in the post itself, as your quote indicates.) In any case, though, I still think the Palin pick was a net gain for the McCain ticket relative to his other alternatives, just not as much of as a gain as I had feared.

    Nevertheless, if you want to consider that as equivalent to someone suggesting that it is just as well that Rev. Wright bring down the Obama campaign because Obama was destined to lose the election anyway, then, by all means, my bad.

    As long as we’re doing early morning accounting, I was also wrong about the surge, about the Clinton welfare reform legislation, and about those Duke lacrosse players. Meanwhile, regarding certain career choices I’ve made, the jury is still out.


  19. Just having fun, Jeremy, no harm intended.

    As OW noted, Joe’s early predictions may have been off, but: a) it is not as if they were not plausible, and b) he has since revised his take.

    And sadly, I’m convinced that if McCain picked a more credible running mate, and if the economy hadn’t tanked so dramatically, Joe’s early predictions would be spot on.


  20. Dave: I am in the middle of one of my crazy insomnia phases, where I have a full day of meetings and such and will be doing them on ~90 minutes of sleep, so let’s just say I might be a little bit touchy this morning.


  21. Andrew Hacker wrote and piece about Obama and Race in the NYReview of Books back in September.

    See: “The Price of Being Black

    To note some polling data on this, “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.” – However, what that 20% means is not clear – perhaps a non-trivial minority will vote for Obama in part because he is black.


  22. OW: I accept entirely your critique and withdraw my claim of racism. The point I actually was trying to make is that Obama is presumably deriving some benefit, alongside the cost, from being African-American.


  23. @29 – In assessing this, one should not just consider the possible positive effects on votes, but the possible positive effects on fundraising and the indirect effect of that on votes.


  24. So I am late to the party, but how is this not the Bradley effect again? I get that it is MORE (people who tell pollsters they will not vote for him because he is black and those that tell pollsters they will but then won’t). Again, the whole “just because of race” is too simplistic but isn’t this gap we are discussing in this effect the sum of the Bradley-effect liars and the ones who are willing to admit it? So to guess/know the number of people who won’t vote for him “justbecause he is black” is some portion of the sum of the overt racists an the Bradley racists. Right?
    What am I missing?


  25. It’s always interesting to listen (read) academia views and discusses things. I enjoy the discourse immensely.

    As someone born and raised in rural America, drafted into the military, and submergered in the cross section of America during my military service, I do believe there are some real world truths:

    1. Some people are racist and they will always be. Both black and white.

    2. Some people will always vote Republican (or Democrat) no matter what.

    3. 1 and 2 will continue for generations.

    4. This and every succeeding election will be decided by Independents, not Republicans or Democrats. Because they are pragmatic not dogmatic.


  26. Hey Jeremy – I hope you’re getting some sleep – insomnia sucks.

    Thanks for the link to our blog and sorry to be jumping in so late, but I haven’t really known how to respond (Joe’s traveling by the way, so not near a computer). I’m not sure who you thought would be annoyed with your post, but I’m not annoyed. I am puzzled, however, about what prompted the post and your comments that followed.

    Maybe it’s just the insomnia.


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