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.)



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.