How Race Can Help Obama
And why an Obama win wouldn't be a victory over racial prejudice.
On Election Day, if current polls hold true, hundreds of thousands of racists will vote for Barack Obama. In fact, if the election is close in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Virginia, one could argue that the support of people who have at least some degree of prejudice against blacks could hand Obama a victory.
The implications of this are stunning: Far from costing Obama the election, as some have argued, race may not be much of a factor in people's decisions—even those with negative attitudes toward blacks. It then follows, however, that his election may not represent the victory over racism many of his supporters hoped it would.
On the face of it, it seems at best absurd, and at worst offensive, to argue against the relevance of race in the first general election in U.S. history featuring an African-American candidate for president. But recent polls, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest that other issues may trump race this year.
The biggest recent survey to deal with race, conducted by Stanford University and the Associated Press, asked voters how closely they associated certain words and phrases—such as law-abiding, violent, and lazy—with blacks. About 40 percent of whites identified strongly at least one negative adjective describing blacks. Of those whites, 24 percent said they would still vote for Obama, while 55 percent said they'd vote for McCain. Of the whites who did not identify strongly any of the negative adjectives about blacks, 41 percent would vote for Obama—about even with the percentage who would vote for McCain.
It may well be too much to call the whites who cited negative adjectives about blacks "racist." (Not to mention differentiating between "symbolic racism," "modern racism," "racial resentment," or "laissez-faire racism.") But it does serve as a rough indicator of prejudice. It also indicates that negative feelings toward blacks don't necessarily translate into negative feelings toward Obama.
A new Gallup poll, meanwhile, suggests that negative feelings toward Obama's race are neutralized—and possibly even outweighed—by positive ones. In this survey, the vast majority of voters—both black and white—said his race made no difference to them. But 6 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him, while 9 percent said it made them more likely to. Among whites alone, the numbers were 7 percent "less likely" and 6 percent "more likely." In other words, race cancels itself out.
The reasoning behind the numbers may be more elusive. The most obvious reason for people with negative views of blacks to vote for Obama is the economy. There's anecdotal evidence that people otherwise averse to voting for a black candidate are considering Obama because the economy is so bad. (Here's more such evidence.) This week's Time cover story reports that the economy has replaced race as the key factor in the election. Then there's partisanship. Strong identification with Democrats might trump strong feelings toward blacks among many voters. (Click
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.