by Jon Johansson
Will race influence the outcome of the US presidential election? Jon Johansson examines Barack Obama’s chances of becoming the first black president, and what it would mean.
“I, too, sing America
I am the darker brother
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the Kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.”
LANGSTON HUGHES, 1924
This beautiful Langston Hughes poem, shown to me once by a student, is something I read out whenever I talk about civil rights in America. And now I find it usefully frames the question of whether race will influence the US presidential election this year, with Barack Obama poised to contest November’s election against Republican John McCain.
Obama will have most, if not all, of the fundamentals in his favour. Around 80% of Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction. The chief helmsman of this course during the past eight years, George W Bush, has a presidential approval rating so low that he has only America’s First Crook, Richard Nixon, for company as a failed modern president.
There is widespread and deeply felt insecurity about the economy, gas prices are crippling for such a gas-guzzling nation, and the credit crunch is taking people down with it. Republican legislators are discredited, variously vanquished as corrupt, unresponsive or inept. Then there is the ongoing “War on Terror”, whose theatre was so spectacularly enlarged at such great human and economic cost after Bush and Dick Cheney embarked upon the tragic deceit that is the Iraq War.
If one is swayed by these fundamentals, the contest for the presidency is effectively being decided right now by the Democratic Party’s superdelegates. And once “Billary” have finally been dispatched, as they will be, knifed by the very establishment in which they have been such central creatures, Obama’s destiny will be within reach. We will finally get to see just how beautiful he is. And even if Obama fails to win in November, his candidacy will have “widened the doors of freedom”, to borrow a line from his own bestseller The Audacity of Hope. As others inspired him, his acts will inspire others.
It is difficult to grasp the triumph of Obama’s achievements, even this close to the mountain top, when one considers that just over 40 years ago black voters in southern parts of the US were still very much consigned to Hughes’ kitchen.
Robert Caro, in his brilliant Master of the Senate, tells the story of Margaret Frost, a black woman from Barbour County, Alabama. Frost, like other black voters, had to pass an oral test before she would be allowed to register to vote, a ploy consciously pursued in corruption of the 15th Amendment.
In some counties, blacks had to remember the name of every county judge (all 67 of them), or the date when Oklahoma was admitted to the union, or, sadistically, the number of bubbles in a bar of soap.
Luckily for Frost, the questions put to her by white officials were within the bounds of human knowledge, so she answered them correctly. Unluckily for her, she was accompanied by two friends, and when one of them got a question wrong, the entire group was disqualified from being able to register to vote. They were sent home with the patronising advice to “study a little more” ringing in their ears, one final hate-filled humiliation inflicted on a disenfranchised people. All over the South, blacks were told “stay in the kitchen”.
Since the Voting Rights Act (1965) finally liberated blacks like Frost to participate fully in their own democracy, as voters and as candidates for office, Obama represents the pinnacle of black electoral achievement thus far. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have blazed a path after being appointed to the highest echelons of the government. Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas have also been appointed as Supreme Court Justices, but no black candidate has ever come this close to being elected to the presidency.
Given the history – the annihilation of indigenous Indians, blacks being codified as three-fifths of a person, a bloody Civil War, followed by another 100 years of inaction over civil rights – an Obama victory in November would be seen as a transcendent moment in American history. A history, I would argue, whose strength was underpinned by the far-sighted optimism of the Founding Fathers, one sustained by the moral as well as iron-willed leadership of Abraham Lincoln, and perpetuated by a people who do not impose limits upon themselves, for both good and ill.
The first significant challenge happened in 1988 when Jesse Jackson won 11 Democratic primaries or caucuses. He was even briefly afforded frontrunner status until eventual nominee Michael Dukakis beat him in the Wisconsin primary, although pre-primary polls had shown Jackson doing much better than his eventual result, a phenomenon to which I’ll return.
Now, we have Obama. The central question is whether white America is ready to vote for a black nominee. Race is an elephant in the room in ’08.
My own initial encounter with America’s fragile flower of race happened 10 years ago. I was in Ohio with a mainly American group of 60 students and professionals enjoying a summer school adventure in political psychology. It was mid-1998 and our group was made up mostly of white college students, a bunch of intelligence officers from the Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA, a smattering of internationals, and half a dozen black college students.
White and black groups quickly and consciously separated. We just seemed to naturally float away from each other, pushed by different racial currents.
The spooks, none of whom were black, never strayed from the majority group, nor did the Australian, but this Kiwi at least tried to engage with the black students. I tried baseball, I tried politics, and I tried drinking. None of it really worked. I didn’t possess the language to pull it off. The gulf was too wide, and although David Lange always said he was separated from the Americans by a common language, I found it was something else as well, a chasm in our different histories that seemed unbridgeable.
Whenever I returned to the bosom of the in-group, I was castigated by my white friends for being so naive as to even think my attempt worthwhile. “They don’t want you in,” said one. Another, “It’s not worth the effort”, or, “We’re always made to feel guilty.”
The races were so incapable of engaging one could only despair. Defensiveness characterised one side, and frustration and anger the other. Who and where were the bridge-builders?
In 2008, a bridge-builder has offered himself. He has not so much emerged as exploded into our collective consciousness. Barack Obama is an unbelievable phenomenon, an exotic cocktail of black African and white Kansan stock, a man whose personal struggle with his own identity mirrors to some extent that of his country and whose astonishing preaching has energised the young, the alienated, and the atomised in a way not previously glimpsed since the height of the 1960s counterculture upheaval.
A revolution, I should add, that culminated politically in the ill-fated McGovern campaign of ’72 and in an existential angst that Hunter S Thompson, the brilliant gonzo chronicler of that campaign, never did shake.
The liberal George McGovern won only one state against Nixon and it wasn’t even his own. Importantly, McGovern’s coalition of highly educated white liberals, blacks, and college students mirrors Obama’s current bedrock support. This should worry Democrats because no one knows how low Obama’s electoral floor might fall if his bubble bursts. This liberal coalition, if he does not expand it, could potentially yield a similarly disastrous result, if not quite of McGovern proportions, come November.
Yet a little over two weeks ago, 80,000 people in Oregon attended an Obama rally. In earlier rallies, fervent supporters fainted so regularly that it became a mundane occurrence. Obama’s message of change is so compelling, and he makes the case for a bipartisan coming together so hypnotically, that he has conjured up for many the image of JFK, not least in the eyes of the fallen hero’s brother, Senator Edward Kennedy.
“There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America,” soared Obama in an electrifying speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Well, that unifying idea is being put to the test during the primaries and the results so far are quite mixed, fraught even, because race effects have revealed themselves, and they are notoriously difficult to pin down, not least because we humans have become very adept at hiding our prejudices.
So, how has race already affected the contest? The first real evidence of something odd taking place happened in February. Late polls before the New Hampshire primary showed Barack Obama’s support pulling away from Hillary Clinton’s by about eight points on average. Clinton went on the following day, however, to win the primary 39 to 37%, thereby confounding, and not for the last time, the pollsters and infuriating those pundits and voters who find her counterfeit.
The Republican primary result on the same day had been accurately predicted by pollsters but the Democratic one had gone seriously mustang. This was highly unsettling for people whose reputations relied upon their accurately gauging public opinion. The question was soon posed about whether the “Bradley effect” was in operation because one candidate, Barack Obama, was black.
Tom Bradley was a black former mayor of Los Angeles who was leading comfortably in pre-election polls during a 1982 gubernatorial contest in California against his white Republican opponent. Right up until the moment that the votes were actually counted, that is. Bradley then lost by some 50,000 votes and the suggestion was that white voters had consistently lied to pollsters by hiding their racial prejudice against the black candidate.
The Rhode Island primary was another possible Bradley-type event. Clinton’s 18-point victory was twice the margin of pre-election polls, but it is not all one-way traffic. A reverse Bradley effect has also been operating. In several states – North and South Carolina are two prime examples – Obama’s margin of victory was significantly larger than pre-election polls suggested.
Here the explanation is probably less problematic. Pre-election modelling and poll sampling simply didn’t factor in the significantly increased black turnout because election models relied upon historic black voter behaviour from 2004, when no black candidate was running and nominee John Kerry had already seen off the opposition, so turnout was low.
This was akin to the problem, I believe, that bedevilled election-night predictions on TVNZ in 2005 when the “model” analysts relied upon failed to predict the high incidence of previously non-voting South Aucklanders voting for Labour – simply because it was based on historic voting behaviour that changed that year.
There is, nonetheless, very good research that shows voters do mislead pollsters over the issue of race, and it’s by no means solely a US phenomenon. An election poll on issues in 2005 conducted on behalf of two of my colleagues at Victoria University, professors Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, revealed that race – which domestically basically meant attitudes towards ongoing Treaty settlements and the proposed abolition of the Maori seats – was ranked well down as a priority for voters, in lowly sixth position, behind perennials such as tax, health, education, and law and order.
Yet I was told by strategists in both major parties that the biggest gain either party received during the campaign was when National’s Don Brash reintroduced race into the campaign two weeks out from voting.
So, do we mask our prejudices when we talk to pollsters? Or each other?
Of course we do, all of us, mainly because we find psychological comfort in placing the best version of ourselves before the world. And to the extent that we are able to consciously control our veneer to the outside world, we do. This best version of us rarely includes revealing long or deeply held prejudices, especially of the racial kind. More disturbing is that these cognitive processes begin early in our development and then harden quickly.
Cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner described in Five Minds for the Future how our ability to distinguish groups is manifest before we begin formal schooling. Three to four-year-olds already make meaningful distinctions between individuals and groups in terms of their skin colour and other distinguishing differences.
Even infants in the first months of their lives – when their neural networks are still highly malleable mush for all practical intent – will look preferentially at faces the same colour as their own, although, promisingly, not if they live in an environment where different coloured faces are their norm.
Gardner also believes that by the age of five the lines between group inclusion or exclusion, love or hatred, have already been drawn. But even more depressing is the finding by psychologist Yarrow Dunham that by the years of middle childhood, youngsters have already learnt to deny they are prejudiced in any way. We learn early and we learn often.
What probably has changed, however, is the evolving nature of societal norms – yes, the cumulative effects of all of that dreaded political correctness – which has made it increasingly unacceptable to wear one’s prejudices overtly so they have, by and large, where not adapted, been driven underground.
One American study, for instance, showed that in 1944 only 45% of whites agreed with the statement that “blacks should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job”. By 1972, after the breakthrough civil rights reforms of the mid-1960s, 97% of whites agreed with the same statement. This reveals a dramatic increase in social acceptance of black participation in American life among whites but also suggests that during different social milieux people feel greater or lesser freedom in expressing their true beliefs.
A recent Newsweek poll (May 23) conducted by a Princeton Research group showed virtually no difference between black or white Americans, who en masse responded very positively to the question of whether their country was ready to elect a black president (75% of blacks saying “yes” to only 18% responding “no” versus 72%-21% support from white voters), or between white Democrats and Republicans (73-21 versus 72-22).
Yet, in the same poll, with Obama and McCain tied 46% to become president, white Republican or Republican-leaning voters favoured McCain by a massive 88-8%.
Social scientists have developed, and pollsters deployed, a Racial Resentment Index (RRI: see inset). This instrument attempts to probe underlying race attitudes. When respondents were asked in the same Princeton Survey whether they preferred to see Obama or Clinton nominated as the Democratic candidate, Obama was favoured 50-42. The question was posed during the middle of May when the delegate maths and negative media framing had seen Clinton virtually written off. Clinton was nonetheless still ahead with white voters (50-41). And among white voters who rated high on the RRI index, Clinton was hugely favoured (67-21).
This type of confounding data has led former Clinton adviser Dick Morris (these days Hillary-Hater-in-Chief) to label Obama as an unelectable candidate who is being nominated by a party that cannot be defeated, while he calls McCain the eminently electable candidate running for a party doomed to defeat.
Clinton has attracted significantly greater support from Hispanic voters, not least, one thinks, because they are the group closest to blacks in terms of the median wage and perhaps find claims made against black “special privileges” such as affirmative action more seductive.
In bellwether contests against Clinton in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Obama struggled to foot it with Clinton for the affection of white voters, especially blue-collar males. During the West Virginia primary, when Obama would press flesh with a line of factory workers, many white workers would not meet his gaze. But whether this is Obama’s race or his perceived elitism is difficult to disentangle.
Obama certainly hadn’t helped his cause with this voting bloc when in the sanctuary of an elite San Francisco audience he described the good people of the Appalachian region as, more or less, feral. Their “clutching” onto their right to bear arms and illiberal views on immigration explained why they didn’t “get” him. The county in Pennsylvania where the movie The Deer Hunter was shot, Fox News gleefully announced, gave Clinton 75% to Obama’s 20-odd points.
The perception of Obama as the elitist and Clinton as the people’s champion was one of the great ironic moments of this campaign.
Arguably the most powerful explanation for divisions along race lines in this campaign happened after the South Carolina primary, which Obama won by 28 points. Bill Clinton put down Obama (consciously so, given the faltering tone and guilty look on Bill’s face at the time) by comparing his candidacy to that of Jackson in ’88.
The code was simple: Obama is a black candidate with limited appeal outside those states with large black voting populations; Obama can’t win a general election; Hillary can; vote Hillary.
Bill charged around like an angry bull elephant, and the Obama campaign’s hypersensitivity to any perceived racial sleights, which serves as an electoral china shop, of sorts, saw plenty of shattered egos and a dramatic split take place whereby the black vote fully deserted Hillary and plumped for Obama from then on.
The furore over Obama’s incendiary preacher Reverend Jeremiah Wright has been the other great race issue of the campaign so far. Wright yelling heresies from the pulpit, such as “God damn America”, “the United States of the KKK”, and advancing the insane theory that the US Government deliberately infected black people with the Aids virus to keep them down, had the immediate effect of raising Obama’s negatives, especially among white voters.
I’d be very nervous if I was a super-delegate, wondering if there is more to be heard from Obama’s off-the-reservation former friend, former mentor and former pastor.
Obama still has questions to answer about Wright, specifically why he hung around him so long. Shelby Steele, a conservative critic of race-based politics, has argued that Obama gravitated towards black identity politics as part of the search for his own racial identity, a journey that led him to Wright’s church. Steele saw Obama entrapped by this choice even as he appealed to whites as a “bargainer”. That, according to Steele, is someone who will not rub America’s racist history in the faces of whites if they do not hold race against him – something Steele claims helps explain the success of Oprah Winfrey.
The other “mask” was that of a “challenger”, someone like Jackson or Wright who confronted white racism head-on. That was never Obama’s shtick – his sights were set much higher – so when Obama’s hand was forced over Wright he (somewhat belatedly) finally rejected old black politics. So far, it hasn’t hurt him.
At best, for Obama, the Republicans will exploit every negative association he has. People like Wright, or former domestic-bomber-turned-professor William Ayers, or Michelle Obama’s tendency to sound very negative about the country in which she has excelled will be endlessly used against Obama. Conscious and unconscious cues to his race, his (lack of) patriotism, and his elitist (and therefore un-American) values will saturate voters through Republican proxy advertising and through the free media.
Obama’s reaction to Wright’s debased rhetoric is instructive. He turned to his famed rhetoric and delivered a 35-minute speech on the subject of race. His speech was favourably compared to Lincoln’s Cooper’s Union speech by no lesser figure than multiple Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills. I disagree that Obama’s speech shared such pedigree. Perhaps one day hence, if Obama wins and succeeds, history might reach that view. But I thought that, like all his speeches, it was far too long.
President Bill Clinton delivered one as good in Memphis in 1993. Bubba was confident enough to challenge the audience by asking them what Martin Luther King would have thought of black poverty, drug taking, crime and despair. Clinton wasn’t afraid to tackle taboos, or invoke a powerful symbol in the cause of liberating hope and courage for people who had little experience or capacity to take responsibility for themselves.
It is true Obama speaks in entire paragraphs, rather than in banal soundbites, so he overestimates the intelligence of his audience – something to be massively applauded in an age where the reverse is the norm. But Obama also preaches too much for my agnostic ear. The religious cadence of his rhetoric is as bad, if not worse, than the religiosity in Bush’s language.
Whereas before the primaries Obama’s fundamental problem with the black community was that he wasn’t considered black enough (in January 2007, Hillary Clinton led Obama 52-28 among black voters, according to a CBS poll), and even after New Hampshire (with Obama now favoured 52-33 after his big win in Iowa), South Carolina signalled a shift that has seen Obama win the black vote nine to one.
The Clinton campaign claims that Obama played the reverse race card in South Carolina and elsewhere, but nowhere is race more front and centre than in the decision-making processes of the superdelegates.
They are entitled, by the rules, to employ any subjective criteria they like when deciding who to vote for. Once Obama gained a crucial separation in the pledged delegate count, after his 11-0 run post-Super Tuesday, his campaign did an excellent job in making the pledged-delegate math the measure for superdelegates.
Electability and suitability have gone by-the-by since the North Carolina and Indiana results, not that they were winning arguments before, either. Nonetheless Clinton, at the time of writing, may have beaten Obama in the popular vote. She would have won some time ago under the winner-take-all rules of the general election, the same basic rules McCain secured his nomination under. None of this will now matter – unless Obama loses.
As wiser counsel put it to me recently, the Democratic National Committee knows which of its disgruntled and potentially disaffected band of core supporters – blacks supporting Obama, or women and older voters supporting Clinton – are less likely to take to the streets if their candidate is seen to be deprived of the nomination unfairly.
All roads lead back to November and the potential impact that one candidate’s race might have in determining the next US president. In the 2008 election, race is undeniably a major elephant in the room, but it is by no means the only one, or even necessarily the biggest. Perhaps the way race affects the presidential contest between now and November is a familiar one for black Americans. Obama will feel that every day he will need to prove himself afresh. However, if your desire is to lead a people in a democratic society and you can sustain criticism over the long haul, constant renewal is not a bad feeling to underpin a leadership.
Fears about the economy, war, McCain’s age, Obama’s inexperience, a strong desire to punish the Republicans, a suppressed turnout, unforeseen events, campaigning, campaign narratives, emotion, whom to trust – all these variables will play out between now and when Americans elect their next president.
After eight years of Bush, one would think the zeitgeist would demand from its next president a fundamental change of direction, first of all, and competence, most of all. It still might. And if it turns out this way then the race issue will prove more a red herring and the logic will turn to McCain because his personal narrative – as a genuine war hero and maverick who tells it like it is – is more compelling than Obama’s, not least because it has so much more depth, for both good and ill, based as it is on sacrifice and experience.
But what Obama has is something nevertheless very special: a symbolic narrative with such potent history, which if embraced by voters becomes a very powerful chapter about America’s better angels. Such a statement by Americans could move man and mountain. President Obama would find out then if he can be the bridge-builder he aspires to be.
Obama does possess real hard-nosed skills to complement his uplifting oratory. The campaign is proof of his communication and management ability. In The Audacity of Hope, he expresses his admiration for Lincoln’s practical qualities. Obama is also undoubtedly both highly ambitious and ruthless.
Geraldine Ferraro, the first major female on a presidential ticket as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, was scapegoated in Obama’s race speech. Obama compared Reverend Wright’s madness with a Ferraro throwaway about Obama being unlikely to succeed if he was white or a woman. This is not what one expects to see from a post-partisan, post-racial candidate of unity.
Obama has shown he can mobilise millions to the cause in a 21st-century way. He has and is raising millions of dollars for the cause. Obama is emotionally charging people and intellectually challenging Democratic voters. He is willing to trust the people’s intelligence. Whether he can transform this raw energy into tangible results as president, however, remains an untested hypothesis.
One of the strongest and most consistent research findings about attitudes of whites is that, although they as a group are more likely to believe poor blacks are the authors of their own misfortune, they also believe that those blacks who have achieved are no different from themselves. Those pesky affirmative-action programmes have helped sensitise whites to seeing how similar, not different, black Americans’ hopes and ambitions are to their own.
Obama, in this sense, is more American beauty than he is not. His varied experience of many different lives and cultures can be a source of inspiration for many, whatever their ethnic background. And if he can cross the bridge to talk to white working-class people, he will build an even more powerful coalition. Championing the Clinton economy, if not the partisanship of the times, would strike a better chord all round in this regard; otherwise Obama will repeat Al Gore’s mistake from 2000.
Finally, when Bill Clinton was at Oxford during the height of the Vietnam War, he would always cite the cause of civil rights to argue that while America might sometimes get things very wrong, and take far too long to put them right, it would eventually do right.
If Obama is elected president on November 4, one hopes Bill Clinton enjoys the irony and the occasional triumph of a self-correcting, adaptive society. I will hope that having addressed one stain, America will quickly turn to another, its foreign policy.
I will fear that Obama’s inexperience will be revealed and all his political capital and the heightened expectations of a fresh leadership will dissipate, that they will seep down the Potomac and then drift out to sea, not to return for the longest time.
But I will also take pause to say just how beautiful Barack Obama is.