Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama's perilous gambit: Speaking the truth about race in America

cross-posted at Michigan Messenger and Huffington Post

For much of the Democratic primary season, Sen. Barack Obama has strategically avoided race by attempting to transcend it.

In his ambitious speech responding to criticism of his affiliation with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., Obama took the issue head on and placed it at the center of political conversation. The candidate of unity laid bare fundamentals of the deepest division of our society.

Now that race is on the table, however, experts say it will undoubtedly affect voter behavior and campaign strategy in the coming weeks, remaining a central campaign issue.

"The divide in America with respect to race is a deep one, an enduring one," said Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist specializing in voter behavior, campaigns and African-American politics at the University of Michigan.

Talk about race makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable because deep, often unconscious biases conflict with social expectations for racial equality.

Experts - from pollsters to social psychologists to political scientists - agree that America's complex race dynamics present a strategic opportunity for Obama's opponents, could affect voter behavior and could influence the outcome of an election in which Obama is the Democratic presidential candidate.

According to Hutchings, black and white Americans support the principle of racial equality in large numbers, but have vastly different opinions about the need for policies to provide greater racial equality. By a margin of 30 to 40 percentage points, African Americans perceive profound barriers with respect to racial progress, while whites for the most part do not.

"There was a time in America, not that long ago, when a majority of white Americans would have proudly embraced the principle of racial inequality. Those days are over," Hutchings said.

While those days may be over, voters' inner conflict and ambivalence around race (and gender) persist and can be exploited by campaign strategists. "The Clinton campaign clearly thinks this is an area of vulnerability and as a result they've been using it. These are likely the most liberal people on race relations, and here you have the two sides bashing each other on race and gender issues," said pollster Steve Mitchell, president of Mitchell Research and Communications.

He also says that survey respondents aren't always honest on issues of race. "There is generally a rather significant difference between what people say they feel and what they say their friends and neighbors feel. They're going to be more honest because it's not them holding a racist opinion, but rather it's their friends and neighbors holding that racist opinion," Mitchell said.

Mitchell speculates that the Bradley effect, where voters inaccurately represent their views to pollsters in elections with racial minority candidates, may have been at play in Clinton's come-from-behind win in the New Hampshire primary. "I think people were disingenuous about who they were actually voting for. We have not seen too much of that in polling since then, but it is a factor you have to look at when you get to the general election," Mitchell said.

Obama's ambitious speech in Philadelphia attempted to unpack the complicated discomfort of racial bias in American society. In a major departure from his strategy of transcendent avoidance, he said things most people don't want to admit or say or hear. Although Obama rejected Wright's most extreme remarks, he didn't disavow Wright and he framed those remarks in a larger critique of racial bias.

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe," Obama said. He has been criticized for that remark by political opponents who claim it undercuts his criticism of Wright and shows disrespect for his grandmother.

Talking about racial bias makes many people uncomfortable because according to U-M social psychologist Denise Sekaquaptewa, even if people consciously hold egalitarian views, they still also possess deep unconscious biases and negative stereotypes, which create inner conflict.

Social psychologists study the relationship between people's unconscious biases and actions. "Social psychologists work to get at things indirectly because people are unwilling or unable to express attitudes that are not socially acceptable," said Sekaquaptewa.

"There is evidence that people use stereotypes in information processing, and it can be without intending to. If you ask them directly if they think someone has stereotypic attributes, you may get a different response than if you assess it indirectly," said Sekaquaptewa.

She describes the phenomenon of aversive racism, which "means we have egalitarian values and we are earnest in that motivation, but sometimes our underlying biases come out anyway. When that happens we feel bad about it. Over time it becomes a negativity." This negative experience of one's own bias makes people uneasy.

She stresses that individuals' own deep biases reflect exposure to underlying bias in society, not character flaws or chosen prejudice. Still, many people find evidence of their own bias disarming and would rather not be aware.

This discomfort inspires a political strategy of avoidance as well as the political tactic of indirect race baiting. As Hutchings put it, "much of the American electorate actually wants to ignore the issue of race."

"Given that whites are deeply ambivalent about matters of race - meaning there is genuine support for the principle of racial equality and genuine opposition to policies designed to implement racial equality - a shrewd political campaign can take advantage of that by trying to exploit those views without at the same time coming across as racially insensitive," Hutchings said.

Self-awareness may be central to understanding political strategy employing race as a wedge. Campaigns can, according to Hutchings, "subtly link candidates to negative stereotypes, so that campaigns can have plausible deniability." Hutchings says that research indicates many whites still harbor negative, anti-black stereotypes, such as "that blacks are lazy and tend to live off welfare, tend to be criminally inclined, may be earnest but not always as bright as other Americans."

"These are horrible things to say out loud and things most whites would recoil at, but we've all been socialized into a society in which those stereotypes are prevalent," he said. Attempts to question Obama's readiness to be president can be seen as allusions to the stereotype of blacks being earnest, but not bright. Obama's affiliation to Rev. Wright directly taps into the stereotype of blacks as unpatriotic.

Another uncomfortable truth about race in American politics is that the political system itself has a racial division that is embedded in the demographics of the two major parties. "Something we don't like to think about but is true about American politics is that something like 85 to 90 percent of African Americans identify with the Democratic Party, and 55 percent of whites identify with the Republican Party," Hutchings said.

The presence of a serious African-American presidential candidate does not in itself indicate progress around racial equality. "At the same time we're slouching toward the possibility of electing an African-American president, we are still within the midst of really serious race issues," said Bob Thompson, an expert on pop culture at Syracuse University. He thinks it would be a mistake to assume electing a person of color president would prove racial inequality has been addressed fully in American society.

He says that "there are a lot of people who feel that by electing Obama or Hillary Clinton president sends a message that we have progressed from the 1910s from when women couldn't vote and 1950s with segregation." But that will only be a partial step in addressing inequality. "It is a problem that seems to be humming in the back of so many of the biggest domestic issues we're facing."

While he thinks it is possible for a candidate to bring diverse people together around a common purpose, the task is more daunting given media fragmentation - a vast diversity of expression in the media that reflects actual social complexity.

"The thing we should remember is how complex race is. Any generalization that attempts to make grand statements is undoubtedly oversimplifying," Thompson said, adding, "The very people who are living with racist ideas are also the ones who have totally embraced black culture as their pop culture. More than half of hip hop music is purchased by white males."

Some see Obama's campaign as an echo of the civil rights movement and the social mobilization of the 1960s. According to Thompson, the kind of wide-ranging social galvanization that occurred in the 1960s is less likely due to the fragmented nature of media today. "The vase of American popular culture has been knocked off the mantle and broken into hundreds of pieces," Thompson said.

With race clearly on the table, political analysts will be closely watching upcoming opinion polls and the next primaries, including the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, to see what role race will play in the election campaign.