Will race tip the balance?

Research from a Brown University professor points to an intriguing answer
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 21, 2012


Any hope that Barack Obama's election would usher in a "post-racial" politics was, of course, naïve. Race is the great American problem. The great American obsession.

But even the skeptical imagined that the rise of this figure — half Kenya, half Kansas — was a moment of real progress. A leap toward the post-racial, no matter how short it might fall.

The president's gingerly handling of race over the last four years has only contributed to the narrative.

Obama's reticence on issues of black and white may be of no great service to our national dialogue, but it has helped to ensure a relative calm — a calm that many have read as our wish for racial harmony come true, or at least a little truer.

But as we head into a tight presidential election — the big, national referendum on our first black president — have we really made the leap? In a fight that could come down to a few thousand votes in a handful of states, could it be — after all this — that race will tip the balance?

And what does the state of our racial politics say about life after Obama?

These are big questions. Research from Brown University political science professor Michael Tesler points to some of the most intriguing answers.


Tesler and David O. Sears's Obama's Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America opens with a discussion of Obama's career-long efforts to downplay race.

In his breakout keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Senate candidate Obama declared "there's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

A year later, when black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were suggesting racism played a role in the Bush Administration's poor response to Hurricane Katrina, Senator Obama averred that the White House's "incompetence" was "color-blind."

The effort carried over into the presidential race. Obama's campaign, aware that Rolling Stone was working on a story on the candidate's fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright, cancelled plans for the preacher to deliver the invocation at the official campaign announcement.

This was to be a cool, race-neutral campaign, designed to defuse white fears of a black president.

But Tesler and Sears argue that the 2008 presidential contest was nothing like the taming of racial politics that we might imagine. Indeed, survey data suggests it was the most racialized presidential election on record — outstripping even Jackson's racially charged bid for the White House in 1988.

The measures are many. But one of the most striking sections of the book details how racial feeling allowed Obama's Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton, whom the authors label the "poster child for the antifeminist backlash," to become the sexists' choice for president — performing 15 points better than Obama among "gender traditionalists" than she did among "gender egalitarians."

How, then, did Obama beat Clinton and, later, Republican nominee John McCain? Well, if Obama faced sharp opposition from "racial conservatives," Tesler and Sears show, he overcame it with substantial support from "racial liberals" — including large numbers of white voters.

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