How Obama's race helps him.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 10 2008 6:37 PM

How Race Can Help Obama

And why an Obama win wouldn't be a victory over racial prejudice.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

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 here to see why racism is a bigger factor among Democrats than among Republicans.)



The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer


Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.


Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.