Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Correlation or Causation? Barack Obama and the Souring of American Race Relations

Hopes that race relations in America would improve with the election of the nation’s first black president have been dashed - with figures showing that the situation has actually worsened in the past two years.

A new poll found that just 36 per cent of voters now believed that relations between black and white was getting better.

This is compared with 62 per cent a year ago and 55 per cent in April.

According to the Rasmussen survey, black respondents were less optimistic - with just 13 per cent believing that understanding between the races was heading in the right direction, compared to 39 per cent of whites.

Confidence that America had broken through a major race barrier with Mr Obama’s election two years ago appears to have sunk along with the popularity of his administration.


With roles both formal (Chief Executive and Commander in Chief) as well as informal (national cheerleader and guardian of the national prosperity), the presidency of the United States is the ultimate bully pulpit and magnet for media attention.

For Barack Obama, these responsibilities, and the incumbent, imagined, erstwhile power of the presidency seem to be magnified. As the first black president he is viewed by many as a messianic figure--a man who is one part Superman, with the power of Star Trek's Q, and infused with the magical appeal of Kennedy-Camelot redux. Obama, especially Candidate Obama, was imagined by some to be able to lay hands, heal the sick, and part the seas of American malaise and decline. Inversely, for many of his ideological foes Barack Obama is the harbinger of doom, all things evil, and a Manchurian half-rican anti-Christ "Progressive" "Marxist" "Socialist" long-legged Mack Daddy who lays awake at night plotting the destruction of their beloved United States of America.

After the fuzzy glow of Election Night 2008 had morphed into the real business of practical politics--the honeymoon now over--we witnessed a predictable backlash. The loyal opposition had decided that President Obama was not moving fast enough and had betrayed the vocal Left. Conservatives, both ideological purists as well as those of the New Right, neo-John Birch, Tea Party crowd, had decreed that they would stand in the schoolhouse door and stop President Obama's policy agenda at any cost...even if it meant burning down the village in order to liberate it.

Obama is truly a "bound man" because the symbolic weight of his racial identity adds a burden, one both positive and negative. For the former, the symbolism of Obama as President is aspirational wherein African Americans and others expect more from Barack precisely because he stands on the shoulders of the Black Freedom Struggle. For the latter, the very fact of his blackness (and that as a black man he had the unmitigated gall to run for the presidency and to win) is a lightening rod for all manner of white racial resentment, and is used as evidence for an insincere neo-liberal colorblind politics that imagines racism to be now dead, slain by the election of America's first non-white President.

Given this mix of impulses in the American body politic, the meme that race relations are now made worst in the Age of Obama is a predictable one. There is always a backlash when a society experiences a system shock. To point: the election of Barack Obama most certainly shook the metaphorical bushes and encouraged the racially resentful, nativist, and bigoted vipers to come out of hiding. But this push-back against America's first black president, to the degree that ideology is intermixed with racial hostility, also leaves some basic questions unasked. For example:

Is the election of Barack Obama merely correlated with a souring of race relations in this country? (Question: what exactly does this vague measurement of "race relations" actually mean? Does it mask and hide as much as it reveals?) In much the way that my getting up in the morning has nothing to do with the sun rising, is the mere fact of President Obama simply coincidental to a decline in the American public's hope about improved relationships across the colorline?

Alternatively, are the policy choices of President Obama (to act or not) on certain issues actually making race relations worse?

As a third option, did the election of Barack Obama along with changing demographics in a time of economic uncertainty stimulate a white racial backlash, an out-sized response that would inevitably overflow into the mass public?

The full story from the Daily Mail can be read here.


CareyCarey said...

This was a great article.

I followed the link, and the comments over there told the real story.

It was filled with resentments, racial attacks, ignorance and scorn, most of which were directed at President Obama.

I believe IGNORANCE was king of the pack. Ignorance and fear (imo)are the shoulders of racism.

chaunceydevega said...

Oh. So nice with complements. We will have a salon for 2.

I am doing a piece on the peanut gallery of some of these pieces. There is where the truth really lies.

olderwoman said...

I've been asking myself a lot of these same questions. Sadly, I don't have any good answers. Good post.

Cobb said...

I've been thinking about exactly how magic that negro has been. Not very.

CareyCarey said...

Well Cobb, your question leads me to question your motive behind your comment. I believe a person gets what they are looking for. Consequently, if one is a cynical person that's prone to look at life from a negative position, they will never see the magic, or the serendipitous rewards we've gained from President Obama.

In short, what magic are you looking for?

Cobb said...

I was looking for the general public who supported Obama to expect NO magic whatsoever. To see through the romance of his charisma and look to the man's record, his associations and his ideology.

Instead, the electorate bought, largely because of a fawning softball press, into the idea that he was a healer. A healer!

I think the majority of Obama supporters did *not* get what they were looking for, and/or they don't want to look too closely right now at what they've got. It is not 'natural' for Democrat candidates to lose midterm elections. I haven't looked, but I wonder how many Congressional reps are now working weasel words into their campaigns to distance themselves from the record of the President.

Again, since I gave no credence to the validity of the desire for Obama to be a 'magic negro', I'm just smirking and reality based.

CareyCarey said...

But Cobb, lets bring it back home. I did not ask you what other people thought. In your last comment, you appeared to stratify your self above the average person, yet speak for them.

Lets move away from the word magic, because obviously, that word has allowed you to use it as some sort of ambivalent wish-list.

Now, speaking for your point of reference, have YOU seen any rewards from Obama's administration? If you say no, I then will surmise that you're either unable to admit there has been benifits from his presidency, or again, you're not looking in the right places.

Maybe I shoulld ask you, if you are a republican? If so, I will understand your entrenched negative opinion of our president.

You also used the word "healer". Okay, in your opinion, what needed to be healed? Persaonally, I've seen a lot of healing. But again, if you persistently make ambiguous statements, that gives a clear indication that you're unable to define the root of your concerns, it goes without saying, you will never find a solution. Keep in mind that a person has to go through the storm to get to the other side. The healing process begins when we are in our valleys.

Now, speak for yourself, because in reality (your word), you can not capture another person's vision, their desires, nor their dreams.

Come on Cobb, your comments have been a re-run of the 10 o'clock news. And, if that's your major source of reference... well, uuummm... who needs more bad news?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I don't want to jump in on the debate, but just wanted to say that this is one of the best commentaries I've seen on this subject. I honestly can't remember a time in my life when I've witnessed so much open white racial resentment.

CareyCarey said...

Come on in Mr Bear, the floor is always open. Explain what you mean by open white racial resentment. Give us a few examples of such. I have an idea of what you're saying, but I'll let you break it down.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cobb--that fawning liberal conspiratorial press, so nice to Obama and mean to McCain and Palin. Life is so unfair--boo hoo, whine, whine. More seriously, that is a spurious claim--Obama was a more interesting candidate with a "better" story, thus a more compelling frame, but they were not "easy" on him. From Rev. Wright to the stories on McCain and Palin they didn't cover (her magical witchdoctor priest; secessionist husband; overall stupidity...that was hired to hide actually; and McCain's anti-Semitic minister), there was a whole lot of soft-balls given the GOP.

@Cary--Obama could do nothing to please Cobb and his kind. If Obama cured cancer in his basement on his free time, Cobb would assail him for not curing the common cold and would label him a socialist for upsetting the pharmaceutical industry. So don't hold your breath.

@Werner--the people are waiting for your next entry.

CareyCarey said...

You're right Chauncey. I generally do not debate people that show their hands, such as Cobb did. But today, I was in my frisky mood. And, as usual, I always learn something when I visit your spot.

"that is a spurious claim-"

Spurious claim... that was not in my vocabulary, but now it is, and I will use it.

Now I am exhaling.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

My students have told me some hair-raising stories. One student told me about being shoved out of the way by a white guy who told her "you people walk too slow." My Hispanic students have talked about rifts with their white friends who spew xenophobia in their presence. Folks in my family have always been conservative, but they've been taking on the whole "we want our country back" meme, which has a barely concealed wellspring of racial resentment. I've overheard so many comments around people who think I'm "safe" because I'm white like them that I can barely believe it.

chaunceydevega said...

@Werner. Sounds like you are going second son with a privileged insight into the ways of the world...sorry for my butchering of Brother DuBois.

Your walking through the looking glass makes me think of Ignatiev's classic "Race Traitor":

olderwoman said...

Ignoring the distractions and focusing on the main issue of the post, I do think that a Black president has made things worse because it activated race as a basis for opposition to his policies, and a lot of the opposition used "race coded" language. A lot of the opposition would be there anyway, of course -- it was there for Clinton. But the Black president activates all the stuff that's out there latent among Whites. I don't have personal experience except from a couple of relatives, but if the data support it, there is a lot of sociological reason to expect that this would lead to increased acts of hostility among non-elite Whites toward Blacks and other minorities.

I'm not real thrilled with all of the Democrat policies, and the same actions by Congress under a White president I think would also have softened support for the Dems among its base, but I don't think it would have activated race prejudice in the same way.

The hard question is whether there are things Obama himself could have done differently that would have muted this effect. More leadership on some policy issues would have made the liberal base happier, but I don't know that better leadership would have muted the racial images among opponents nor the increased racial hostility among Whites. White hostility seems like a pretty standard threat response to loss of position to me, and in my opinion the positive coverage of the Tea Party and the posturing of some media and political figures has implicitly legitimated hostile responses.

olderwoman said...

I'm not sure I was entirely clear. My point is that the favorability ratings and policy support would quite likely be roughly the same for a White president pursuing the same actions, but I do think that Obama's race has activated White racial threat in the opposition and that has, in turn, increased hostility toward Blacks and other minorities. This is what my superficial reading of the data looks like, and it is what sociological theory of racial threat would predict.

Cobb said...

I am a Republican because I play political ball. There are two teams to choose from that are always in the playoffs, the Republicans play for the right goals.

It might come as a surprise to you but I don't have much interest in domestic politics. I don't follow it. I follow current affairs. What I want most from politics is more concerned with foreign policy and economic policy. Obama has done almost nothing to impress me except for the Stuxnet Worm, which of course he would have to deny.

There are probably four or five things I want from the President. I want a coherent strategy for victory in Afghanistan. I don't think I'm going to get it. I want a clear and present aggression against the nuclear ambition of Iran. I'm not satisfied. I want a clear signal that we will politically marginalize Saudi Arabia. Syria and Pakistan in favor of India. I don't think I'm going to get it. I want nuclear power plants built in America, now. I don't think I'm going to get it. I want irrational bailouts ended and clawed back. I know I'm not going to get it. And as usual, I want a 33% cap on Federal income tax. That's about all Obama can do for me. I don't need, want or expect anything else. But whenever he's a wanker, I'll say so. Why? Because I think he's in over his head, but that's a long story.

CareyCarey said...

@ Cobb, You're a Republican? NO! YOU'RE KIDDING ME?

Nevertheless, can I assume that your wish-list can be obtained by a different president? If so, who would that be? Keep in mind, the president only has so much power. Also, I have to question some of your desires, but not today.

But again, who would be your choice as the next president?

Did you know that for over 80,000 days... TWO CENTURIES!!!... there were gentlemen sitting in the white house that didn't look like President Obama. He has been in that house for less 700 days. Now, quick, fast and in a hurry, you want things to change. I think you are projecting the guilt and blame upon the wrong person.

@ Olderwoman, you wrote:

"I do think that a Black president has made things worse because it activated race as a basis for opposition to his policies, and a lot of the opposition used "race coded" language"

So, race was activated because he's black... so he made things worse???

Ol boy! I'm going to let that simmer. And in doing so, I am not going to touch the rest of the comment. I'm just gonna SMH.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

I was interested in this part:

According to the Rasmussen survey, black respondents were less optimistic - with just 13 per cent believing that understanding between the races was heading in the right direction, compared to 39 per cent of whites.

We could expect "whites" as well as duped conservatives of all stripes to have unrealistic ideas about "race relations". We can also expect the same to blame the Blacks for their own social incompetencies; wouldn't be the first time. So let's set that useless statistic aside. I do wonder how many were optimistic between the election and him taking office and now.

My guess is, it probably wasn't much more than 15%. I do feel we correctly anticipated and expected that legendary white/conservative/ignorant backlash from the same old's why so many were either for Hillary or, as I was, for Edwards in the beginning.

Oh Crap said...


In your last comment, you appeared to stratify your self above the average person, yet speak for them.

Sorry to sound insolent, but what other affect can be expected from a 2010 self-identified conservative? Conservatives are very quick to weep big public tears about liberal "elitism", even as they believe and behave likr everyone else was put here for their benefit, to be subject to their rule, since they have the superior morals, ethics, bank accounts, gun stashes and collections of earnest, angry, misspelled picket signs.

These are people who callously exploit the obviously mentally ill like Christine O'Donnell, laud paid-off opportunists like Sarah Palin as role models for young women, and are ready to vote psychobaggers like Sharron Angle into high office.

At this point, what are they good for, except pillory and ridicule?

CareyCarey said...

@ OH Crap,

"pillory"... that's another good word, thank you.

@ CrushedOnPalin,

"I do wonder how many were optimistic between the election and him taking office and now"

I agree, statistics will forever be a dubiuos monster, however, your question uncovered an interesting point. Although I kinda maligned Olderwoman's comment concerning Obama's roll in the present "race relations"(sorry about that), I think I knew what she was trying to say.

Well, I believe she was saying "Leon" and "Shanahnah" are good black folks until they move into their (white)neighborhood or intrude on the good old days(hence, Obama made it worst).

So yeah, statistics now and then, and what are they really good for, is a very good question.

olderwoman said...

CC: Yeah I hope it was clear that I supported Obama as a Democrat (although he is more conservative than I am) and, in addition, was happy to see a Black man elected. But I also think that his election triggered White threat among susceptible Whites and think it is quite plausible that White attacks on ordinary Black people and other minorities may have gone up. It's a pretty standard thing that having the "other side" win activates "your side." And, by the way, I'm not arguing that this response happened for all Whites, only for susceptible Whites who do have anti-Black feelings.

Cobb said...


My wishlists for Presidents are always short. That's the difference. Like Malcolm X theorized, there would someday be independent black men who don't need white men. Like Thomas Jefferson theorized, there would someday be independent Americans who didn't depend on great powers. So maybe those two centuries produced something after all, but not out of a Federal bureaucracy.

The president presides over a bureacracy. He doesn't often have to lead. When he does, he's the commander in chief of the army and the head of his political party. It is not a position that often requires greatness, nor does it often see it.

I think my few expectations of the President and his collection of bureaucracies are proper. I think many other Americans invest too much hope and faith. I have the advantage of being able to call what's stupid stupid without being heartbroken.

Cobb said...

Some of you may recall something called the "Obama Effect". I'm surprised nobody mentioned it here. I wrote about it a couple years ago:

chaunceydevega said...

What a great salon--to use Cobb's words. But, I am wondering. What of the expectations of the public in mass? I always go back to the are the masses asses paradigm and it seems to go both ways. For believers he was the promised child, the haters he was Satan.

How can Obama govern in this context? I for one think he has done well--amazingly well--given the environment and his legislative successes are the greatest sense Johnson. Is he just doing a poor job communicating them?

Cobb said...

Being closer to the side of the haters but not one myself, I would say the most enduring and vital hit against Obama has been the crypto nature of his Left politics. He campaigned on the issues exactly like Kucinich, but he presented himself like a square family values guy with Kennedy-esque telegenics. He promised to end partisan politics as we know it and he spoke to youth like nobody in the past couple decades.

So when various folks tried to pin him ideologically, or to specific individuals, he always slithered away. He used iconography instead of words. And all the controversy surrounding him has been put in terms of his image, not his deeds, what he symbolizes (hope, change, diversity) rather than his political record.

So Obama continues to be slippery and rely on his image, and his dogged opponents keep trying in vain to nail him to some cross, be it of ideology, of religion, of birthplace - all kinds of crazy stuff.

You take that and the simple fact that we live in ugly times that nobody masters, and you have an especially poisoned set of political haters. It's not that Obama *is* Satan, it's that he *is not* anything concrete enough to be anything other than the guy we didn't like.

And he won't admit any mistakes.

Anonymous said...

How should Obama govern in this context? He should take a page from Bill C. and govern firmly in the center if he wants to retain the White House in 2012. He needs to focus on key "kitchen-table" issues, such as education reform, infrastructure, and jobs programs, which will resonate with a majority of Americans and produce more obvious, measurable results.

Let's keep it real: He is the de facto head of the Democratic Party, and the standard bearers have likely drifted farther to the left than most Americans would like re gay issues, clauses in the healthcare bill requiring everyone to purchase or apply for insurance, and the "hearts and minds" strategy in Afganistan. He needs to focus on retaining the support of moderate independents as well as moderate Democrats, particularly those of faith who may have become disenchanted with him due to some moves that may not be in line with their beliefs.

President Obama also needs to reduce the number of press conferences he's giving and let his aides and Cabinet do their jobs in selling policies to the public. He needs to create some distance between himself and the public right now--I think that the level of familiarity he's allowed has unfortunately bred contempt.

Oh Crap said...

Swing state/move to the center strategy has always been a losing strategy. It was rightly discarded in 2008 and should remain in the garbage.

You're kidding yourself if you think the gays are going to keep sitting around being the foil for the conservative bigots to campaign on, election season after election season, and why should we or anyone else?

As for contempt, conservatives will always harbor not only contempt but straight-up eliminationist sentiment for anyone who doesn't fit into their narrow white christian male-supremacist norms. If anything, Obama should quit trying to appease those people because it will NEVER work for him. They are writeoffs.

Anonymous said...

@Oh Crap: No one said anything about appeasing conservatives. He will NEVER win with them. I was referring to moderate "values voters."

As for the rest of your comments, anyone that doesn't think that a move to the center and some pragmatism will benefit Obama doesn't truly understand the political climate we live in. Staying too left of center has become perilous not only to his re-election, but that of other Dems.

Oh Crap said...

Talk about out of touch..."too left of center" now means you want roads and fire departments on something other than a subscription basis.

"Values voters" -- very 2004, as is your entire swing state approach. It's 2010. Welcome to it.

CareyCarey said...

Well Chauncy, since the storm has cleared on this one, I think it's time for me to tell you a little something. See, I was so impressed by your comments that I used you in my latest post. I used a few quotes and linked this post.

My post is actually a re-mix, so I used your words to add a bit of your gumbo, to my old stew.

Hope you don't mind. But if you do, there's nothing you can do now. *lol*

chaunceydevega said...


how nice. But you quoted my evil twin, "Chaunceydenaga" ;)

CareyCarey said...

Opps, sorry, lmao.

But when I look at that name, it does have a certain ring about it, that we're NOT going to talk about *wink*

Lets just blame it on my evil twin... Carey, the other Carey of CareyCarey.