Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Racism and Election 2008

Given that racism is one of the driving forces shaping US society today, and given that this is the first US presidential election in which a candidate from one of the two major parties is black, it was a foregone conclusion that both overt and covert racism would play a role in media coverage, punditry, and the campaign tactics and strategy of the opposition. The desperation of the McCain campaign is certainly bringing out the ugliness always lying there at or just below the surface. Have you seen Jonah Goldberg's contribution to io9's feature on what works of political sf people should be reading or watching before the US presidential election? Goldberg, a pundit for the National Review Online, urges that everyone should watch Angel, Season 4, for this reason:

An extra-dimensional being (played by Gina Torres) appears on Earth, and everyone who sees her becomes totally devoted to her and starts to worship her. She brings peace and prosperity, and only Angel's friend Fred can see that she's really a hideous monster.

In the story, the world is mesmerized by a god from another dimension played by a charismatic black woman who truly does bring universal peace and love to the planet. Her only price: we all must worship her (and provide her with a statistically irrelevant number of humans to eat) and unify around our love for her.

I don't think Obama is evil or a villain of any kind. But the lesson is pretty valid. Obama is the high priest of a cult of unity. Unity can be useful, but it is also very, very dangerous. That's why the founders conceived of a system of divided government, after all.

I didn't get the full punch of Goldberg's point until this morning, when I read a discussion of last night's debate, discussing how McCain, so brimming with hatred for his opponent that he couldn't bringing himself to use the usual Senatorial courtesy of acknowledging that they are colleagues, referred to Obama as "that one"--- a reference, it seems, to the topos of the Dangerous Black Charismatic leader that the McCain campaign and its supporters are exploiting in television commercials and mass media punditry. Writing for a venue like io9, Goldberg wisely plays down the extremity of this position by saying he doesn't think Obama is "evil or a villain of any kind" (which he is no doubt happy to let Sarah Palin say). But "unity" is "very, very dangerous"? Didn't Dubya call himself "the Unifier"? Wasn't that his major campaign point in 2000? And what does divided government have to do with warning about "the high priest of a cult of unity"? For the last eight years the US Congress has been letting the President do whatever he wants, shredding the US Constitution in the process. Does electing Obama pose any greater threat than what has already been done?

Perhaps more troubling is the likelihood that on election day Obama will face "the Bradley Effect" (as it's been called), which several commentators have been warning could make Obama's apparent lead evaporate when people actually vote. Chalmers Johnson's Voting the Fate of the Nation: Will Economic Meltdown, Race, or Regional Loyalty Be the Trimp Card in Election 2008 takes sober note of the effect unacknowledged racism has had on past elections.

Although large numbers of white Democrats and independents have told pollsters that the race of a candidate is not a factor in how they will decide their vote, there is ample evidence that they are not telling the truth -- either to pollsters or, in many cases perhaps no less importantly, to themselves. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queen's College, New York, has written strikingly on this subject, starting with the phenomenon known as the "Bradley Effect."

The term refers to Tom Bradley, a former black mayor of Los Angeles, who lost his 1982 bid to become governor of California, even though every poll in the state showed him leading his white opponent by substantial margins. Similar results appeared in 1989, when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder sought election as governor of Virginia. Dinkins was ahead by 18 percentage points, but won by only two, and Wilder was leading by nine points, but squeaked through by only half a percent. Numerous other examples lead Hacker to offer this advice to Obama campaign offices: always subtract 7% from favorable poll results. That's the potential Bradley effect.

Meanwhile, the Karl Rove-trained Republican Party has been hard at work disenfranchising black voters. Although we are finally beyond property qualifications, written tests, and the poll tax, there are many new gimmicks. These include laws requiring voters to present official identity cards that include a photo, which, for all practical purposes, means either a driver's license or a passport. Many states drop men and women from the voting rolls who have been convicted of a felony but have fully completed their sentences, or require elaborate procedures for those who have been in prison -- where, Hacker points out, black men and women outnumber whites by nearly six to one -- to be reinstated. There are many other ways of disqualifying black voters, not the least of which is imprisonment itself. After all, the United States imprisons a greater proportion of its population than any other country on Earth, a burden that falls disproportionately on African Americans. Such obstacles can be overcome but they require heroic organizational efforts.

This is all pretty strange stuff-- people lying to pollsters-- and even to themselves-- about who they''ll be voting for, and then doing something different when they're actually filling out their ballot. I can believe it, though, since racism does strange, weird things to people's thoughts and emotions.

Just to end on an upbeat, though, in case you haven't already heard about this: Small Beer Press is having a fabulous sale of everything they've ever published, and they will be giving 20% of the proceeds to the Obama campaign. Check it out here.


Niall said...

Also encouraging are these posts at " There is simply no empirical evidence that the Bradley Effect exists any longer. It did not exist in the primaries, and it did not exist in the 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, which was perhaps the most racially-tinged contest of the past decade (in fact, Harold Ford slightly outperformed the late polls)."

Timmi Duchamp said...

That's good to hear. (I was actually wondering about whether there had been such an "effect" in any of the primaries, but couldn't recall having seen anything about it earlier in the year.) It'd be wonderful to think the US has changed in that way. Thanks for mentioning this!

Niall said...

Fivethirtyeight does seem like a pretty solid source on this sort of stuff. I'm still inclined to be a bit wary, since I don't find it impossible that people would behave differently in a general election than in primaries or state races. On the other hand (touch wood), at the current rate Obama's lead is going to be big enough that even if you subtract 7% he'll be ahead. said...

Is it possible, that Obama's lead could evaporate on election day because of Bradley-Wilder effect? Or nowadays Americans are significantly less reluctant to vote for an African-American? Vote here -