Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Race and the 2012 Election: Just what is going on?

I never believed the post racial narrative of 2008, but I didn’t expect the venom of the Tea Party and their hideously racist signs.I consoled myself with the fact that this kind of virulent racism is largely confined to older white voters and that in 20 years (or less) this ugliness will pass. (Unfortunately, I probably won't be around to see it.)

However the 2012 election has made it painfully clear that this is not just a problem of overt Tea Party racism. Something else is going on. According to an Associate Press poll:

Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.” The poll also found an increase from 2008 when 48 percent of Americans expressed implicitly racist attitudes compared to 51% in 2012.

And although the Democratic Party is certainly not free of racism, today’s virtually all white Republican party is "full of racists," as Colin Powell's former chief of staff Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson told MSNBC's Ed Schultz: :

My party, unfortunately, is the bastion of those people -- not all of them, but most of them -- who are still basing their positions on race. Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that's despicable.

The uptick in both implicit and explicit racism helps explain some of the puzzling aspects of the 2012 campaign such as the dramatic shift in the race after the first debate. How did that debate change the trajectory of the race so much so quickly? Salon’s Joan Walsh’s speculates:

Still, it’s worth asking (even if we don’t have answers) why Obama’s first debate performance seemed to have hurt him so badly with white voters, and particularly white working-class men. My hunch is that apart from racism or cultural distrust (which certainly exist), working-class whites are more affected by whether Obama seems ready to fight for them.


I don’t understand how anyone who read the transcript of the first debate would conclude that Romney’s lies and inconsistencies trumped Obama’s more thoughtful responses, but of course nobody reads the transcript. This was all about who best projected leadership and apparently most people saw Romney’s manic posturing as dynamic leadership.

My explanation: deeply (and in many cases not so deeply) buried assumptions about white superiority are still an unfortunate part of the American psyche. My guess is many white people (particularly white men) over 50 boarding a plane would have a twinge of anxiety at hearing that their pilot was black and my guess is that it might be more than a twinge if they learned their pilot was a black woman. I think Romney tapped into the fear that maybe a black guy just wasn’t up to the job and fixing the economy required a white knight in shining armor.

The crazy belief that Obama cannot speak without a teleprompter is held by Tea Party fanatics but there is something more subtle at work with some white voters. Melissa Harris Perry wrote about this in 2011 in her nation column, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” She acknowledged that crude Tea Party racism is now mostly confined to the political margins, but that Obama’s re-election bid, however, “may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it:”

The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

Perry compares liberal/ progressives’ responses to the Clinton and Obama administrations. Her focus is on progressive response to the president, but her comments I think have broader application:

[President Obama’s] record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

I think Obama’s record is far more impressive than Clinton’s, but agree with Perry that Obama has been held to a higher standard and this (at least in part) explains the sudden, dramatic shift on the part of the electorate after the first debate .

If Obama wins, let’s hope that the double standard Perry describes finally begins to fade away.

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