Weeks ago, while a group of us were out registering voters on behalf of Claire McCaskill and Barack Obama, I knocked on a door in a low-income housing complex here in Joplin.
A young woman greeted me. There was the noise of a little one in the background, and I heard the voice of a young man, presumably the woman’s husband or boyfriend. I told her why I was there and she said she wasn’t interested. I turned away and walked down the stairs and on to the next apartment.
Through their open patio door someone heard the man say:
You should have told ’em we ain’t votin’ for no damn nigger.
That wasn’t the first time I ran into such bigotry while doing the little work I did on the 2008 and the current campaign.
I pass on that story not because I think it is typical of the opposition to Barack Obama this campaign season or last. I pass it on because it is part of that opposition, part of the equation of the 2008 election, part of the reason the 2010 midterm election brought too many bigoted extremists into power.
And it is part of why President Obama is having a hard time convincing a majority of voters that he is a better choice this time than a man who has constantly lied during this campaign, who has misrepresented both himself and Mr. Obama, who has abandoned all pretense of honesty.
And the bigotry we found that evening in Joplin is a large part of why there still is a large number of Americans, mostly Republicans, who don’t believe Obama is either Christian or American, who don’t believe he sees or loves America the way they think—they imagine—they do.
How big a part does such bigotry, such racism play? Beats me. I just don’t know. But it’s a part. It needs to be accounted for. It needs to be addressed. As does more mild forms of race-based opposition to the President.
An AP poll released on Monday showed a depressing result:
In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.
And Hispanics don’t escape the withering eye of whites either:
In an AP survey done in 2011, 52 percent of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Hispanic attitudes. That figure rose to 57 percent in the implicit test.
All of that has real electoral consequences:
Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote in his Nov. 6 contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Obama also stands to benefit from a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said. Overall, that means an estimated net loss of 2 percentage points due to anti-black attitudes.
In an election as close as this one, 2 percentage points may as well be 20.
Before I go on, I want to note another finding by the AP study, a finding that should disturb those of us who believe we are on the side of the angels:
The poll finds that racial prejudice is not limited to one group of partisans. Although Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism (79 percent among Republicans compared with 32 percent among Democrats), the implicit test found little difference between the two parties. That test showed a majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans), as did about half of political independents (49 percent).
So we Democrats have some work to do. No, given we are Democrats, we have a lot of work to do.
As I write this, the latest Obama-Romney pre-election polling confirms the disturbing racial polarization extant in America. While it’s not surprising that a Democrat will, once again, not receive the support of a majority of white voters—none has since Lyndon Johnson in 1964—it is, at least to me, a little surprising that, after Mr. Obama’s rather robust showing among white voters in 2008 (43%, two points more than John Kerry in 2004), a Washington Post/ABC poll now indicates that only 38% of whites support Obama, while 59% support Romney.
One has to ask why Obama has, according to the latest polling, kept or increased his numbers among blacks (95% in 2008) and Latinos (66% in 2008), who have been hurt more than whites by the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, but lost a lot a ground among whites. Is it mere identity? Or is it that Romney, mostly through his surrogates, has subtly (and not so subtly) exploited white angst and turned off non-white voters? Come on. You know the answer to that.
But one seriously has to ask why it is that Obama performs so poorly among working class whites. Obama lost them by 18 points last time, and in 2010, House Democrats collectively lost working class whites by 30 points to the House Republicans, according to NPR. That reportedly was the largest margin since, uh, 1854, the year the Republican Party came into being. What is it among this group of folks that turns them off from Democrats, even white ones?
And Obama isn’t doing well particularly among white men, as this headline a few days ago from CBS demonstrates:
In 2008, white men represented about 36% of the electorate, according to exit polling, and John McCain got a whopping 57% of their vote, Obama only 41%. But Obama’s 41% was the best showing by a Democrat since 1976. Today, polling shows that Romney is leading by an unbelievable 65-32 margin. What accounts for that?
As I have said for more than three years now, what accounts for some of that, and what accounts for some of the lack of white support for Obama generally, is white angst, the feeling that the culture, dominated from the beginning by white faces, is slipping away.
Oh, don’t take my word for it. Or don’t take the word of a xenophobic Republican like Pat Buchanan, who has written extensively on the subject. Try the much respected Michael Barone, a conservative who worked for years at US News and World Report and who now, among other things, appears on Fox as a commentator and holds a job as senior political analyst for the right-wing rag Washington Examiner.
Barone wrote on National Review Online on Monday:
Why are whites more partisan than just about ever before? Maybe because they’re constantly being told that they’re headed toward becoming a minority of the electorate. Self-conscious minorities tend to vote more cohesively. Or because they’re the objects of racial discrimination in, among other things, university admissions, as documented by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor in their recent book, Mismatch. Republicans are often told that their party is headed toward minority status because of the rising numbers of heavily Democratic non-whites.
There it is, all you lurking conservatives who don’t want to admit it. Michael Barone, one of your own, defined the angst among white people and gave us a reason why that angst translates into votes for Romney, for perhaps the last great white hope.
All of which brings me back to that bigot in Joplin who called Barack Obama a racist name, knowing that we could hear him. Is he one of those white people who is experiencing the white angst I have written so much about these past three years? No, I don’t think so. He’s just a run-of-the-mill racist, a punk kid with a mind full of intolerance, a head full of hate. He would be an Obama-hater under any circumstances, even without the threat of losing cultural control.
But he is part of the problem, part of why there is such racial division in America. Unfortunately, the larger part of the problem, to a degree not easily measurable, are those white folks who would never allow a stranger hear them call the President a nigger, or entertain in public the idea that their opposition is based on what Barack Obama represents.
But in the privacy of the voting booth, these white folks would cast a vote against him out of an unspoken, often unacknowledged, racial anxiety, but call it something else, something less offensive, something less revealing.
Whether President Obama wins another term, or whether Mitt Romney’s cynical strategy of secrecy, duplicity, mendacity, and subtle appeals to white anxiety is successful, the country will soon change. Demographics will see to that. America is browning, my friends.
And then Michael Barone’s excuse for white partisanship, “Maybe because they’re constantly being told that they’re headed toward becoming a minority of the electorate,” will be a reality.