Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reality Check: Obama's Election Victory Does Not Mean That Era of Race-Based Identity Politics Has Died

Since 1964, no Democrat has won a majority of white voters in a presidential election. Although most media accounts of the 2008 election suggest a reversal of fortune for the Democrats, Obama's recent victory did not alter this statistic.

In 1964 Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed major civil rights legislation, which prohibited racial discrimination in a host of contexts, including employment and places of public accommodation. One provision (Title VI) also banned racial discrimination in the usage of federal money. Enforcement of this law would have bankrupted southern schools systems, because the federal government provides large amounts of financial assistance to state educational systems. Although the Supreme Court had decided Brown v. Board of Education 10 years earlier, in 1964 only 1% of white and black kids attended schools together in the South. Standing alone, Brown did not affect the racial composition of schools, although the case became an important symbol that organized blacks and their supporters to lobby for more progressive changes. After reading this blog entry, you might view Obama's victory in a similar light.

When LBJ signed the 1964 legislation, he predicted that the Democrats would lose a whole generation of the South. He was correct. But following this year's election, many commentators have argued that race relations have dramatically shifted and that the South (and other red territory) has now become blue (or at least purple), citing to Obama's victories in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, and Indiana.

Furthermore, much of the commentary surrounding the election has concluded that Obama's success in red states means that most Americans have discarded race-based identity politics and that the electoral map has permanently shifted as a result. Some of the most wildly hopeful liberals assert that the nation is now left-of-center and that Obama's administration will implement a comprehensive liberal agenda, while an impotent GOP watches in utter dismay.

Well, here at Dissenting Justice, I like to combine a hopeful outlook with a healthy dose of down-home southern "straight talk" (not the McCain-Palin variety). Consider me the designated driver among political commentators this year. Despite the dramatic discourse that proclaims a radical shift in U.S. race relations and political ideology, my analysis of exit polls in the state-to-state contests suggests that starry eyed commentators need a reality check.

In many blue states, for example, Obama failed to get a majority of white voters. In several others, he only won a very slight majority of white voters. The vast amount of support he generated from black and Latino voters helped deliver him the victory in those states where he was unable to secure a majority of white support. To Mr. Obama's credit, Gore and Kerry faced similar obstacles. But while the media announce the end of race, identity politics -- in terms of race-based voting -- clearly played a significant role in Obama's victory. Below, I provide a breakdown of the results of my analysis, which relies upon CNN exit poll data.

*11 Blue States Where Obama Failed to Get a Majority of White Votes:

Colorado (48-50), Florida (42-56), Indiana (45-54), Maryland (47-49), New Jersey (49-50), Nevada (45-53), New Mexico (42-56), North Carolina (35-64), Ohio (46-52), Pennsylvania (48-51), and Virginia (39-60).

*5 Blue States where Obama Received a Small Majority of White Votes:

California (52-46), Connecticut (51-46), Illinois (51-48), Iowa (51-47), and Michigan (51-47).

Data Summary and Big Picture
Obama lost the white vote by a wide margin in the traditional red states. Of the 28 states that voted for Obama, he only won a majority of white votes in 17 of them. 5 of the 17 are in New England; two of them include his birthplace of Hawaii and his current home state of Illinois. Obama' received only a small majority (between 51-52%) of white votes in Connecticut, California, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. UPDATE: Initially, I neglected to pull the white-voter data from Iowa and Illinois. Now I have corrected this. Incredibly, Obama only won 51% of white voters in both states!

Black and Latino voters helped secure his victory in key states. In Pennsylvania, for example, blacks and Latinos made up 17% of the electorate, and Obama received 95% of black votes and 72% of Latino votes. In Nevada, blacks and Latinos represented 25% of the vote, and Obama won blacks by 94% and Latinos by 72%. In Florida, blacks and Latinos cast 27% of the votes, and Obama won blacks by 96% and Latinos by 57%. In Indiana, where blacks and Latinos cast 7% of the votes, Obama won blacks by 90% and Latinos by 77%. In Ohio, blacks were 11% of the electorat, and Obama won 97% of their votes. In North Carolina, Obama secured 95% of black votes; blacks represented 23% of all votes in the Tar Heel State. Finally, in California, blacks and Latinos were 28% of the votes, and Obama won 95% and 74% of these important votes.

This breakdown does not mean that Obama only won because of blacks and Latinos. It does demonstrate, however, that race remains a very strong factor in voter preference -- despite all of the hoopla about the demise of race, racism, and social conservatism. A sizeable gender gap also remains pervasive in virtually all states. And California voters, who approved an anti-gay constitutional amendment, remind us that "sexual orientation" divides even the heart of the Democratic Party. Although blacks in California (and nationwide) gave Obama even more votes than they have delivered to Democratic candidates in the recent past, they also flexed their heterosexual political strength and helped to enshrine bigotry in the state constitution. Florida, Arizona and Arkansas also passed anti-gay initiatives, and affirmative action survived in suddenly blue Colorado by a hair.

Although I am happy to see very jubilant people of color and energized voters, liberals need to come back to Earth very soon because their distorted perception of the current political landscape will only harm social justice efforts. At some point (hopefully soon), the election-night buzz must concede to sobriety, and then all of us who desire concrete progressive change must engage in the tough work of organizing and developing strategies to make these changes a reality.


Anonymous said...

As a white, conservative woman who voted for McCain, I read your article with interest. Some GOP members have been celebrating Obama's victory as the end of race politics--"No more can anyone throw white guilt at us anymore, since our country elected a black man." I commented to this writer that race-based politics founded on pushing white guilt have been so wildly successful that it will certainly not die but take on greater life, so your article made me smile. Seriously, slavery and Jim Crow, etc. were such heinous sins--how can they ever be repaid? And who should repay the debt of guilt? Am I guilty just because I'm white (even though my ancestors never owned a slave and supported abolition and had nothing to do with Jim Crow?). Yet, how can focusing on the past move anyone forward?

What is a racist? In my mind, a racist is anyone who makes a decision about a person on the basis of their color of skin. I have met far more Democrats who are racist than I have met Republican racists (and I'm sure there is racism on both sides).

I personally prefer the ideas of Martin Luther King, who desired that people are color-blind--they make their decisions on the basis of the person's merits, actions and ideas, not the color of their skin. With everyone talking about race and many deciding to vote or not vote for Barack on the basis of race, that certainly hasn't happened. And if it's fine that black people overwhelmingly voted for a black man, why is it so horrible if Obama didn't win the majority of white votes? If anything, these numbers you quote show that white people were much less racially-based in their voting than minorities.

That white people are less concerned about race not only shows up in these numbers you quote, but also in my personal experiences and observations with whites and blacks. I have never been taught by my parents, "We act this way because we are white." It's always "We do this because it has merit."

When I taught in the inner city, it floored me that the first thing on my students' minds was race. The very first question they asked me was, "Is you white?" I pulled up my sleeve to show the skin underneath and answered, "Yes." They pressed, "No, is you WHITE?" I then knew what they meant--do I fit their stereotype. I answered, "You'll have to get to know me and find out." They did get to know me and they decided that I was "black". I was honored by this, but I was also disturbed that they considered a decent human being they could relate to couldn't be "white". I accept this is the way it is, at least in the little micro-cosm I experienced in that school, but it is not color-blind, and it locked those kids into a self-made stereotype that had no power to let them rise as individuals through merit, but rather kept everyone down. In Baltimore, where I used to live, one kid from the ghetto who made it to college got shot on Christmas break by his neighborhood kids when he came home, because he broke the neighborhood-made stereotype. I accept this is the way it is, but it is very distressing to me, because it perpetuates the misery we are trying to fight.

My students described everything-- from walking, talking, fighting, wearing make-up to sex--they did on the basis that "Black people do it this way." They also "knew" all about white people, but then one admitted to me I was the first white person she had ever really talked to, even though they all knew in their perceptions exactly how white people do everything. I don't know if this is typical, but it was certainly the strong message communicated to me by my students.

I see much of the tension as cultural, and particularly educational. I also see that the African-American urban society has suffered the most from Democratic well-intended, but misguided "compassion", and I am amazed that they have continued to let the Democrats control their failing urban areas decade after decade. (Maybe you can explain this).

Most Republicans I know are color-blind (and I only know the ones I know, so I can't speak for everyone else). We don't give two hoots about a person's skin color, and I am not at all surprised by or uncomfortable with a black president. I think we come across as insensitive, because we really and truly do NOT care about skin color and don't realize (or can't accept) that it is a major factor in the world-view of minorities. We have failed to acknowledge the cultural differences, and we are hampered from doing so because as soon as we open our mouths we are labeled racist. It is a very painful place to be, and I am very distressed by it.

Obama's race is the single comforting thing about his presidency to me--not because I give a fig's tooth about his skin pigmentation, but because it means so much to my African-American friends. Most of his ideas are about as comfortable to me as having my contacts removed with a chainsaw, but I will wait to see what he does before I freak out too much.

I don't even know why I'm talking, but somehow having Obama be president-elect has given me the motivation to talk about this subject in a way I haven't before, except when my students talked to me about it, uncensored. It is so painful to be called a racist (You haven't come outright and called us that, so I'm not blaming you), but Republicans have been called racist by many online, and one person to my face who didn't know anything about me, simply because I am a Republican.

I could never vote Democrat with the party in its present condition--Obama's excessive stance on furthering abortion rights alone would be enough to give me great pause in pulling the lever for him. The Democrats are the ones who have protected and thus promoted promiscuity as a way of life through abortion and through welfare--both intended as a help to poor women, but instead, they marginalized fathers, and African-American urban areas have suffered the most from these policies.

They are also the ones protecting failing schools, and locking African-American kids into economic poverty because they pass them through high school, giving undeserved A's, pretending and lying to them, that they will be able to compete in the economic world. When they fail, then it is easy to see why they believe the cause of failure is due to racism, because many urban areas are divided by race. In the inner city public school where I taught not a single high school kid could write a paragraph, and few could read comfortably, and I have talked with the union reps who protect failing teachers. I know that urban teachers have a hard load to bear because of the fatherlessness, but protecting the ones who have given up is unconscionable and unjust, and perpetuates whole generations of minority kids unable to compete.

Everyone says that if the urban schools had enough money, they would be fine. This is a farce. I have also taught in a faith-based school that caters to at risk kids from the ghetto (no one turned away--only pay what they can). Our school operated on 40 per cent of the public school budget per child, and our kids outperformed them by five-fold, and they were safe, to boot. It was love and faith that motivated us, and that made all the difference. Money is important, but the NEA has not been faithful stewards with the money they have in urban areas, and in my opinion, it's criminal.

Democrats are also the ones who protect criminals. The problem of fatherlessness is the biggest risk factor for a life of poverty and crime, and the Democrats appear to believe "It's not their fault, so we should defend them." But in fact, most of the crime continues to be perpetuated in urban black areas, so again, the apparent compassion is wreaking havoc, and I don't understand why African-Americans appear to continue to support the very criminals who are killing them.

Democrats are also the ones appointing judges who have cut God and prayer out of schools, the Ten Commandments out of the courts, and cut out the historical foundations of integrity and humanity that were derived from the Bible, and then we wonder why corporate greed fails the country in this economic crisis.

Abortion is the murder of the weak by the powerful, for personal gain. It is the victory of the lesser right of the powerful (mother's pursuit of happiness, or right to orgasm without natural responsibility, to put it plainly) over the greater right of the weak (right to live). Isn't that why slavery was wrong? Slavery was the victory of the lesser right of the powerful (slaveowner's right to own "propery") over the greater right of the weak (slave's right to liberty)?

Abortion perpetuates fatherlessness because it promises sex without responsibility. The lie everyone believes is that everyone deserves to have sex without the responsibility of possibly creating a child. The lie is that abortion reduces the number of unwanted children--that people can abort their babies until they are "ready" to have one. Instead, abortion ingrains the most selfish, irresponsible and cruel habit which undermines the very character needed to be a good parent. It allows men and women to view children as commodities to be acquired at the desired time, and allows sex to be viewed as unrelated to long-term relationships. The lie is that the choices you make today have no bearing on the choices of tomorrow. The lie is that it is better to be dead than to be poor. The lie is that unwanted unborn people deserve to die and do not ever get a choice.

I have spoken openly, probably for the first time, and I really don't know all the answers because I've never had much of a dialogue about this topic with African-Americans (most of the dialogue with my students was them telling me about stuff, and I didn't say much). I would love to have some explanations for my questions. I suspect that there are serious sins on the part of the Republican party that have alienated the African-American community, and although I don't really want a venting drubbing, I am open to a dialogue to discuss it, because this recent whomping we got has roused my curiosity enough to overcome my fear of discussing the topic.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Lori. Thanks for your comment. I just want to highlight a few points in response to your essay. Sharing is what makes this fun for me.

First -- I really hate policy arguments that resemble "blaming" because this is usually a conversation stopper. Instead, I prefer the concepts of remedy and responsibility. I agree with you that Jim Crow and Slavery were so awful that no one can "pay" for them. But this is not how we usually deal with remedying prior action that harms all or segments of our society.

For example, we (as a nation) have engaged in a number of historical practices for which Americans today have to pay. Deficit spending, governmental torts, committing ourselves to treaties that require foreign aid and military assistance, etc. are all decisions that you and I did not vote for but which bind us today in terms of financial obligations.

Similarly, I do not have any children, but I pay property taxes to finance public schools and I pay more taxes than people with children. Regardless of the merits of doing this (I tend to believe in strong public schools), I do nt feel attacked or blamed for anything.

To the extent that we have not remedied the generational transmission of inequality, I believe that we could view fixing that problem in the same way that we view any other remedy. But in order to defeat remedies, some people have a knee-jerk reaction and describe them in terms of racial warfare. This is unhelpful.

Second, Dr. King himself embraced the concept of remedies -- even if that meant doing particular things to help blacks as a class. He used the concept of a race, in which one party was given a headstart and the other was held behind. Fairness might dictate treating those two parties differently in order to do justice -- not to demonize or blame the other party for anything.

Finally, blacks have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats since the 1940s! It did not start with Obama. Also, when blacks first earned the right to vote (during Reconstruction), they voted 100% for Republicans - even more than the support they gave Obama. Clearly all of the presidential candidates they supported were white. Black voter cohesion is not racist; instead, it iss "race-based." It reflects the reality that blacks haved placed all of their bets on getting one party to commit to serving their interests. During Reconstruction and beyond, the GOP represented these concerns. Things ended at the turn of the century, but in the 40s and beyond, blacks turned to Democrats.

Also, as I mentioned in the main post, whites also shifted away from the Democratic party in droves once LBJ signed the civil rights laws. I did not call that racist -- although many of them certainly were racist because they were angry over the legal invalidation of Jim Crow (which they claimed did not "harm" blacks). Nevertheless, I said it was a form of race-based identity politics. All racial demographics have engaged in race-based identity politics, and women have engaed in gender-based politics. Even Sarah Palin did so! Accordingly, I do not view this as a matter of party affiliation or ideology.

Thanks again for your comment.

Irreverent Cyborg said...

Darren what you raise in this essay/post has been squarely on my mind since well before Nov. 4th. The alleged 'end of racism' - as many white media pundits are proclaiming n self-congratulatory terms - is one of the things that I'm most concerned about on the heels of the election. Not merely is this coming from right-wing talking heads, but I'm encountering it among 'regular' people in everyday situations, re: "well now those insert_minority_group_here can't complain about insert_ism_here".

How anyone can come to that conclusion - that the election of a bi-racial, harvard educated man who has received tremendous backing from wall street and corporate america - fundamentally changes the situation for people of color in Amerika is beyond me.

What are we on, 1.1 million African-Americans in prison - a number 8x higher (proportionately) than whites. More young black men in prison than college. Vast differences in prosperity, health, and poverty where Latin@, Black, and other minority communities are far worse off than their white counterparts.

I think we most certainly need to keep talking about this - changing the face at the top, even to one of a minority, does not in and of itself, alter the conditions for the many minority groups. For that to happen, I feel we need to work on solidarity and bonds between different groups to make our voices heard.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hello, Irreverent one....I believe that people either had a limited definition of what a "left" agenda means...or they never really embraced leftist politics in the first place...or they have simply settled for less. Perhaps they are even progressive pragmatists, but that does not explain irrational exuberance.

Anonymous said...


Obviously we haven't reached the end of racism (after all, there are country clubs in this country where our next President couldn't be a member) or the end of identity politics, but yours is only a "glass is half-empty" analysis. (And dismissing states where Obama won the white vote, but just not by a large enough margin to your liking, is stretching things to make a point; the fact is, Obama DID carry the white vote in those states.)

There also exists a "glass is half-full" analysis. Let's list the states where Obama did win big margins among white voters: Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massechusettes, Rhode Island, Hawaii. Thats a LOT of states, and that shouldn't be glossed over.

Finally, nation-wide, Obama tied McCain among white voters outside of the south. In the south, Obama lost big, by 38 points, which caused him to lose the overall white vote by 12, but it's largely a regional issue particular to the south.

And as you said, no Democrat has carried the white vote nationwide since 1964; well 10 of the 11 Democratic candidates since then were white, so one can't claim that whites refused to vote for them based on race. Plus, Obama did better with the white vote than some of those white Democratic candidates.

So I think there is much to be pleased about, from my perspective.


Anonymous said...


You say that "whites are less concerned about race" than blacks, well of course! Blacks have to deal with the race issue every single day. Whites don't *have* to be as concerned about race. But as Darren said, blacks have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate in recent decades, even the white Democratic candidates. ;)

I've seen some complaints that Obama did get a bit more black support than white Deomcratic candidates, but I didn't see anyone complaining about Dukakis getting overwhelming support from Greek Americans, more than a non-Greek candidate would've gotten. Same phenomenon. And you can bet that Guiliani would've gotten a huge Italian vote, Romney would've gotten huge Mormon vote (that happened in the Republican primaries), Richardson would've gotten huge Latino vote. It's not just blacks that engage in identity voting when there's a chance to break a barrier for the first time.

But the candidate has to have more going for him than just race/ethnicity/religion. For example, Al Sharpton and Carol Mosely Braun did terrible among black voters in the 2004 Democratic primary. And black republicans (there are a few) never gave Alan Keyes any support during his multilpe runs. And blacks didn't support Cynthia McKinney's quixotic run.

-- Kira

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Kira. Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to write your insightful comments. Although my analysis may seem "glass half full," I write from the standpoint of history. I have conducted a lot of research on racial progress, starting with the Civil War, and a common thread in discourse following progressive changes in the status quo of race relations says that this "change" has completed all of the necessary work on racial inequality. This rhetoric animated political discourse during Reconstruction, following World War II, during the Civil Rights Movement, and in contemporary politics. Obama's successful candidacy has only energized people who want to dismiss race as irrelevant -- and race-based remedies as racism. Your comments responds to a similar argument left by another reader.

I am not being negative; instead, I am trying to offer a sober perspective. The celebration over Obama's victory -- absent any meaningful dissent -- will only legitimize claims that we have "killed" conservatism. In my opinion, walking blindly is more dangerous than walking cautiously.

PS: I hope you return. I loved your analysis.

RealityZone said...

WOW !!

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