As he looks back on his first term, President Barack Obama can take satisfaction from a series of significant accomplishments. But according to a new analysis by a Brown University political scientist, his rise to power has also produced a less-welcome result: A renewed alignment between political preference and “old-fashioned racism.”President Barack Obama's tenure in office has been a lightning rod for white racism.
In the post civil rights era, racism is viewed through the white racial frame as a monster slayed. However, while racial inequality is a changing same, and a social phenomenon that is so well-documented in terms of its impact on wealth, income, incarceration, job opportunities, access to health care, education, life expectancy, and overall life chances, there are members of the public and media that would still like to deny the power of the color line in American society.
Some of these racism deniers are well intended souls who believe that ignoring a reality makes it go away. Others are deeply invested in white privilege and truly believe that white folks are oppressed in the post civil rights era. And a good number are just old fashioned racists who have simply adopted their rhetoric to the 21st century.
As I am fond of saying, "racism is not an opinion." There are common sense examples of the enduring power of white racism and racial resentment in the Age of Obama: birtherism, the racially explicit herrenvolk appeals of the Tea Party, and Mitt Romney's sophisticated dog whistles about the unfitness of a black man to be in the White House are readily accessible and clear evidence supporting this claim.
There is also empirical research which documents the influence of white racism and hostility towards Obama on "neutral" matters (for example, those who score higher in terms of white racial resentment even hate the first family's dog); conservatism has been demonstrated to strongly overlap with white racism and racial resentment; Internet searches for racially charged terms have been shown to be highly correlated with how certain regions of the country voted against the country's first black president.
Michael Tesler' article "The Return of Old Fashioned Racism to White Americans’ Partisan Preferences in the Early Obama Era" has provided another arrow in the quiver for those who use empirical data to demonstrate the continual influence of white racism on political behavior in the Age of Barack Obama.
America remains largely segregated for the masses. But, the country has integrated its elite classes in some modest ways. Moreover, it would be a profound error in analysis to overlook how a multicultural elite class and a black president have simultaneously enriched and complicated our national narrative about the meaning of race in American cultural, social, and political life.
Obama's election, and the demographic changes associated with it, i.e. the oft-discussed "browning of America," have been a political enema for the Right. As such, the presence of a black man and his family in The White House has brought to the surface what were thinly disguised--and apparently quite deep--veins of bigotry, xenophobia, and intolerance on the part of the Tea Party GOP.
Michael Tesler details this nicely. His article contrasts "OFR" or "old fashioned racism" (the belief in the inherent biological inferiority of non-whites) with modern racism (a belief that blacks are "culturally" deficient and lack the "American values" of hard work, civic duty, and loyalty) and how the former has returned to prominence in the Age of Obama.
The old school is the new school (again)...it would seem that political fashion is cyclical.
It would seem that Barack Obama has brought some white folks back to the future, and made relatively outmoded attitudes current once more.
There ain't nothing new in the game:
These significant results persist in large part after controlling for the correlation between old fashioned and newer forms of racial animus too. In fact, the evidence suggests that Obama simultaneously activates both OFR and racial resentment. The most plausible explanation for that dual activation is that Obama independently taps into both the classic symbolic racism theme that blacks have too much influence in politics (Sears and Henry 2005), and old fashioned racists’ concerns about the leadership of a president from a racial group whom they consider to be intellectually and socially inferior.
Regardless of the reasons, though, these independent effects of both old fashioned and newer forms of racial animus suggest that the rapidly expanding social science literature testing race-based reactions to his presidency with less blatant anti-black attitudes overlooks important information about the nature of racialized responses to his presidency.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the election of the country’s first black president had the ironic upshot of opening the door for old fashioned racism to influence partisan preferences after OFR was long thought to be a spent force in American politics. This renewed relationship could have important implications too. We may, for instance, see an increase in racist political rhetoric since such messages should be more relevant and resonant now that OFR factors into partisan preferences. The inherently divisive nature of OFR sentiments also likely contributes to the especially rancorous atmosphere surrounding Obama’s presidency.
More work, of course, is needed to understand just how this activation of old fashioned racism will manifest itself in both elite and mass political behavior during Obama’s presidency and beyond. For the time being, though, it appears that opposition to an African-American president from the Democratic Party will continue providing a veritable avenue for the expression of old fashioned racism in white Americans’ partisan preferences.