For several reasons I haven’t said much about the role of race in the current presidential election. The primary reason is that it is a difficult issue to address empirically, and in contrast to many blogs, my intent at this site isn’t to inculcate or reinforce a particular world view. If I can’t find at least some data on a topic, I typically don’t have much to say about it. A second reason is that I find that most discussions about race quickly degenerate into ad hominem attacks that begin with “Your mother” and include a reference to “Hitler” somewhere.
But because “Miscweant” raised the race issue in his comment to my last post, and because race received renewed prominence, particularly in the liberal blogosphere, in response to Mitt Romney’s comment during a recent campaign stop in Michigan that “No one ever asked to see my birth certificate”, I wanted to say a few words about race in this post. I have no illusions that I’m going to change anyone’s views regarding whether and to what degree issues of race are influencing evaluations of Obama and the election. But perhaps we can move the conversation away from unsubstantiated claims and counterclaims and more toward a fact-based discussion of this important issue.
If you missed the comments section, “Miscweant” writes, in the context of criticizing the “birthers” and others focusing on Obama’s failure to disclose his academic transcripts, etc.: “And if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s plain old all-American racism at the root of it all: a ‘colored person’ couldn’t possibly be smart enough to achieve Obama’s accomplishments – it has to be affirmative action opening doors for an unqualified person.” Miscweant’s comments pick up on a relatively common theme expressed by pundits on the Left, namely, that racism undeniably plays an important role in presidential politics today in ways that undermine electoral support for Obama, and make his presidency more difficult. Moreover, as Chris Hayes opined recently on NBC, there is a strong belief among many liberals that racism is predominantly a Republican trait.
Are those who propound this view right? The difficulty in evaluating such comments is that people generally don’t openly profess racist views. Indeed, they often go to great lengths to hide them – hence, the theoretical basis of the so-called “Bradley effect” (which, as it turns out, has not been empirically demonstrated to exist). When I give election talks, and am asked about the race issue, I always ask those in the audience to raise their hands if they are racist. Needless to say, no hands go up. This means discussion of race often take place in an empirical vacuum, which in turns allows the most strident voices to dominate the discourse. After all, who can refute their claims?
To get around this, we might ask people questions that we believe tap into underlying race-based sentiments. When we do so, what do we find? Both Alex Tabarrok and John Sides look at some survey questions from the General Social Survey and the National Election Studies designed to assess respondents’ racial views. Tabarrok finds almost no difference between Democrats and Republicans on their views toward interracial marriage, or whether they would vote for a black president. Sides finds slight differences between Republicans and Democrats on responses to questions asking about intelligence and work ethics, as this table indicates:
Sides concludes: “Overall, Republicans are slightly more likely to assess blacks unfavorably on these dimensions. For example, 39% of Republicans place blacks on the “lazy” side of the scale, while 31% of Democrats do. But by and large … both parties include substantial fractions willing to stereotype blacks unfavorably.” Moreover, when he tries to separate respondents by party based on their views toward blacks’ intelligence and work ethic, he finds that “identification with the Democratic Party tends to decline, and identification with the Republican Party tends to increase, as attitudes towards blacks become less favorable—at least when attitudes are measured with two different racial stereotypes. However, the relationship is far from deterministic: substantial minorities of those with unfavorable attitudes toward blacks identify as Democrats.”
This is by no means the final word on the subject – indeed, it barely scratches the surface of what is a very complicated topic. I urge you to read both posts in full. You may find that you read the data differently, and that there are alternative explanations dealing with class or other factors that may explain some of these results. You might also take a glass half full perspective, with substantial majorities of both Democrats and Republicans with positive racial views. But at least the two authors cite data. To be sure, as I said above, I have no illusions that survey data like this is going to sway very many people from their beliefs regarding the relationship between race and partisan identification. And these questions don’t necessarily do a very good job at measuring what many of us think of as racism. Nor do they address other facets of what is a multifaceted issue, such as racial conflict among non-whites.
So, does racism play a big part in presidential politics? In part my answer depends on what you mean by “big”. Based on the admittedly circumstantial evidence cited above, and on the success of forecast models in predicting Obama’s victory in 2008 without referencing race, I believe the answer is no. Fundamentals associated with the economy are going to be far more determinative come November. And too often I think critics begin with race as their first explanation for Obama’s difficulties in office, when other factors are likely more important. But this is different from saying race plays no part. If Obama loses this election, I don’t doubt for a New York minute that at least some of his supporters will blame racism, and that no amount of argument to the contrary will persuade them otherwise. And, in a very close contest, they may be right – race could conceivably swing enough votes to cost Obama the election. But that does not mean that race will be the primary explanation for the vote against – or for – Obama.