Sunday, September 21, 2008

Andrew Hacker in the NYRB, 'Obama: The Price of Being Black'

By Ben Trott

Obama’s candidacy – and everything surrounding it – has of course been interpreted as meaning or revealing various things about 'race' and race relations in the United States today. There’s an interesting piece in the forthcoming (September 25) issue of the
New York Review of Books by Andrew Hacker who teaches Political Science at Queens College. It draws upon a few different problematics. He talks, first of all, about what the election campaign has revealed so far. Secondly, he discusses the challenges – in connection to various issues surrounding race and race relations – which lie ahead for the Obama campaign. And finally, the article concludes by making a few suggestions to the Obama camp. Manuela Bojadzijev, who forwarded me the link to this piece, pointed out that what’s interesting about the text is that it doesn’t so much deal with the symbolic and discursive dimensions of racism, which are obviously important (and have received a relatively large amount of attention so far), but with it’s ‘physicality’.

Here’s a very quick summary of the article. It is, however, well worth reading in full (click on the first link above).

The article’s author begins by explaining that polls during the Democratic Party primaries showed 15-20% of White voters admitted race had played a role in informing their voting choices (which most likely, of course, in some cases also means that Obama’s being Black was a reason
to vote for him). There’s every chance, however, that the real proportion of voters for whom race had played a role was somewhat higher. The article cites the so-called ‘Bradley effect’, named after Tom Bradley who, as LA’s Black mayor, ran in the 1982 Californian gubernatorial race. He was well ahead in polls prior to the election, but the end result came back very different. The phenomenon has reoccurred with other candidates since. Gary Younge, last week, wrote of the ‘Wilder effect’ – the difference being that Doug Wilder won the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial race, albeit with 8.5% less of a margin of victory than polls had predicted. Perhaps most surprising of all, the article notes, voters not only lied to pollsters ahead of the election, but also claimed in exit polls to have voted for one candidate when they had in fact voted for another only moments earlier.

The second focus of the article is on how whilst, for a long time, there had been a tendency towards increasing voter turn out (extending franchise, lowering the voting age to 18, etc…), the tendency today is in the opposite direction, apparently intended to stop/limit voter fraud. Increasingly, new restrictions have been introduced, such as the requirement to present photo ID at polling stations. Hacker highlights the consequences of this for different constituencies. He cites the example of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, where 53% of Black adults have no driver’s license, compared to only 15% of White adults. ‘Similar disparities’, the survey he quotes explains, ‘will be found across the nation’. There are of course alternative forms of ID to driver’s licenses, but there are considerable obstacles to obtaining them. (In a recent article in the Guardian, there was a reference to Democrats already being nervous that Republican challenges to voter eligibility may cause the build up of off-putting cues at polling stations on November 4 – so it seems this is an issue currently being taken seriously)

The article also runs through a number of other ways in which Black voters might be disqualified, including due to the proportionally higher number of Black men and women in jail. The US currently has 2.3 million people incarcerated. The ratio of Blacks to Whites is 6:1. (The US Department of Justice have more precise figures here). Apart from in Maine and Vermont, prisoners do not have the right to vote. And in many states, many of those released still face a ban or serious restrictions. The article cites a report which says that 13% of Black men cannot vote for various reasons. In three states, 20% cannot vote because they are or were locked up.

The problems facing the Obama campaign are, however, two-fold. One aspect is that noted above. But whilst a huge Black turnout (involving surmounting these various challenges) would almost certainly help Obama, this would still not be enough to win him the election. White voters, the article argues, need to be persuaded to vote Democrat in large numbers. And it is not since 1968 that the Democratic Party have been able to win the support of the majority of Whites (in 2004, 58% of White voters voted for George W. Bush, and 41% for John Kerry). The author attributes this partly to the earlier opening of the Democratic Party as a ‘biracial’ party having raised concern amongst White voters, seized upon by Republicans. He cites a separate article in the
New York Review of Books explaining that some White voters ‘were never going to vote to put a black family in the West Wing any more than they would go on living on a street that got too integrated.’

Towards the end of the article, Hacker explains, ‘I've been careful so far not to use the word “racism”. The term itself has become an obstacle to understanding. Once white people hear it, they tend to freeze, and start listing reasons why it doesn't apply to them. After all, most Americans admire Oprah Winfrey, like Tiger Woods, and respect Colin Powell. Yet racism persists, albeit not publicly voiced, especially in the belief that one’s own is a superior strain.’ However, he continues, ‘not many whites regard Barack Obama as their inferior; effete or arrogant perhaps, but they don't fault him on intellect. To some, indeed, he may seem too much the intellectual.’ He then returns to an earlier theme in the article; namely, that some White voters feel like they have had to ‘bear the brunt’ of affirmative action. Hacker cites the cases of Grutter and Gratz who, in 2003, petitioned the Supreme Court to end the policy, after having been turned down by the admissions department of the University of Michigan after their places were supposed to have been given to lesser qualified Black candidates (the article notes: ‘What is rarely mentioned is that neither Grutter nor Gratz were outstanding candidates. To put it crudely, they weren't high on the ‘white list’.’) And many voters, the article says, feel similarly disgruntled. ‘Resentment of perceived black privilege’ then, Hacker explains, may also play a role in White voters’ voting decision; as may, even, ‘fear of some kind of racial payback.’

In order to deal with these twin challenges (obstacles to ‘getting out the Black vote’, and the reluctance of White voters to vote Democrat, let alone for a candidate who looks like Obama), Hacker proposes going further than Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky has suggested (he proposed the building of ‘multiracial coalitions’). Two parallel campaigns, Hacker argues, need to be built,
‘a quiet one to assure a maximum black turnout, and a more public one to make the most of the white backing the Obama-Biden ticket already has… His black supporters will know what is going on, and not take this as a rebuff.’

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