Race in the Race

The most recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll indicates:

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles. The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points… More than a third of all white Democrats and independents — voters Obama can’t win the White House without — agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t have such views.

In related coverage, Brent Staples writes a NY Times op-ed on Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race. Staples highlights the parallels between “uppity” blacks and the recent use of “uppity” about Obama by a Georgia Republican. He concludes:

Mr. Obama seems to understand that he is always an utterance away from a statement — or a phrase — that could transform him in a campaign ad from the affable, rational and racially ambiguous candidate into the archetypical angry black man who scares off the white vote. His caution is evident from the way he sifts and searches the language as he speaks, stepping around words that might push him into the danger zone. These maneuvers are often painful to watch. The troubling part is that they are necessary.

Nicholas Kristof recently argued that the repeated questioning of Obama’s Christian faith (isn’t he a Muslim?) represent another way to “otherize” Obama:

What is happening, I think, is this: religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian. The result is this campaign to “otherize” Mr. Obama. Nobody needs to point out that he is black, but there’s a persistent effort to exaggerate other differences, to de-Americanize him.

As I argued recently in David Brooks and the Social Animal, the Republican party is about “one culture,” portraying itself as the most American, and avoiding the inherent complexity and even relativity that the anthropological notion of culture entails. A lot of that, historically, comes back to race, including the Southern strategy of the Republican party that has proven successful over the last three decades.

I lectured on race last week in my Introduction to Anthropology class. In lieu of that, you might check out the American Anthropological Association’s outstanding project Understanding Race. The site focuses on three main areas: (1) history, complete with an online video; (2) human variation, with online graphics and text exploring topics like the human spectrum (a basic intro to thinking about human variation), race and human variation, and the variation in human skin color; and (3) lived experience, exploring topics like sports and beauty.

PBS has a documentary series on Race: The Power of an Illusion. Here’s one clip that I used from it:

I also played the first part of this video to get them to think about how the black vs. white dichotomy doesn’t capture our variation today, and also to think more about the assumptions they make when they see someone. And while I think overall the lecture helped do that, still at the end there were statements being made like “those Asians” or “white kids,” showing just how powerful our “racial” categorization is here in the United States.

11 thoughts on “Race in the Race

  1. I guess i’m wondering where the critical analysis of the lived experience of race is represented here. OT say that Race is a myth is true, but also simplistic. Many things are social constructions that have incredible impact on our day to day lives. I may choose to identify as a Native American, but if other native Americans don’t accept me, does it truly matter how I think of myself or others? I believe the idea that what matters most is how we think of ourselves can only be spoken from a social position where your thoughts are valued as having an impact on the world.

  2. From the linked site on race and human variation

    all of the alleles that are common in non-African populations are also common in African populations”

    This is nonsensical. Do people actually believe this stuff?

  3. tdaxp, I don’t see it as non-sensical. What I see this as saying is that variations that are found in particular non-African populations (say, rhetorically, European vs. Asian) are also common to African populations. In other words, African populations share common variants with non-African populations, but also unique alleles. That combination indicates an ancestral population, because of shared common descent across the board and also unique attributes to African populations themselves. Just one note, however, populations (in the abstract, evolutionary sense) have no relation to the racial categories we have built as historical and sociocultural forms. Conflating historical distinctions with biological populations is not good human biology nor good cultural anthropology.

    Still, I wasn’t quite clear on what you objected to. What do you specifically find nonsensical about the statement?

  4. Republicans have been successfully exploiting the racism of Democrats. Republicans don’t need to be racist, and in my experience generally don’t care about race. But to win national elections they need independent and at least some Democrat votes.

    Race has worked very nicely to split the Democrat block. It helps Republicans that Democrats are so intensely tied up over race.

  5. Tom, isn’t the exploiting of racism racist itself?

    And in my experience, particularly living in the South for a number of years, Republicans care deeply about race and often play their politics to that angle.

    Bob Herbert wrote about John McCain using race back in August: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/02/opinion/02herbert.html

    And for the South, you might read the balanced book The Republican South by David Dublin, which argues that economic, social and race issues all played a role in successful Republican politics there.

  6. Here’s a follow-up op ed by Nicholas Kristof “Racism without Racists” where he argues:

    One of the fallacies this election season is that if Barack Obama is paying an electoral price for his skin tone, it must be because of racists.

    On the contrary, the evidence is that Senator Obama is facing what scholars have dubbed “racism without racists.”

    The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama’s support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That’s significant but surmountable.

    Most of the lost votes aren’t those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

    Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.

    “When we fixate on the racist individual, we’re focused on the least interesting way that race works,” said Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at U.C.L.A. who focuses his research on “racism without racists.” “Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus.”

    For decades, experiments have shown that even many whites who earnestly believe in equal rights will recommend hiring a white job candidate more often than a person with identical credentials who is black. In the experiments, the applicant’s folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience.

    Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.

  7. Michael Cohen writes Does Race Really Matter? today in the NY Times. There he examines the issue that Kristof raised, indirect racism, as well as concerns that in polling, white voters are not revealing their prejuidices but those will come out in the privacy of the voting booth. So here is the contrast to Kristof’s piece.

    He concludes:
    In the end, we don’t know how the race factor will play out on Election Day. No pollster can look into the soul of a voter; and the verdict cast in the voting booth is a highly personal decision where a whole series of political and social factors have an impact on the final choice. But examining what we do know about voting patterns suggests that fears of racial animus determining the presidential election are wildly overstated. Race may play a factor on Election Day; but then again it may not. And even if it does, it may provide more, not less benefit to Barack Obama.

  8. The New York Times has a Week in Review piece today, Funny Numbers: Do Polls Lie about Race? It provides some historical context to the Bradley effect (polls indicating a win for a black candidate, only to see a loss on election day). Then it discusses how the Bradley effect has changed, depending on factors such as the percentage of African-Americans in the state or district and also on how polls are conducted, such as race of the person asking the questions.

    Will the Bradley effect make a difference in the election? Most people think the economy will trump the issue of race, but for the pollsters, “even in the least complicated years, polling is a recipe with a good dash of ‘Who knows?'”

  9. Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times today about research on implicit biases, race and being “American” in his op-ed What? Me Biased? It covers work done by Thierry Devos at San Diego State and Debbie Ma at the University of Chicago focusing specifically on race in the race. Here’s one paragraph:

    “Professor Devos found that when participants in the latest study were told to focus on the age of each candidate, or on the political party of each candidate, then Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain were perceived as equally American. It was only when people were prompted to focus on skin color and to see Mr. Obama as black that he was perceived as foreign.”

    If you want to test your own unconscious biases, here are the links provided by Kristof:



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