Saturday, May 24, 2008

Race, religion, and Obama

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Race, religion, and Reverand Wright have been prominent "issues" on the campaign trail, and Obama has done a great deal to address racism, his faith, and his former pastor, but a new Newsweek poll "clearly suggests a lurking racial bias in the American electorate" that poses a serious challenge to his candidacy.

Here are a few of the findings, along with my comments:

1) "Even as he closes in on the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama is facing lingering problems winning the support of white voters -- including some in his own party. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll of registered voters, Obama trails presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain 40 percent to 52 percent among whites. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's challenger for the Democratic nomination, also trails McCain among white voters but by a smaller margin, 44 percent to 48 percent."

-- This is something of a concern, to be sure, but "white" is an awfully broad demographic group. I'm not sure these numbers tell us all that much, other than that many whites are Republican and that Obama has done poorly, relatively speaking, with some whites, namely, working-class whites. It is possible that some whites are responding negatively to Obama in reaction to the prolonged and at times bitter race against Hillary. (Perhaps some of them supported Hillary but are temporarily supporting McCain now.) It is also possible that these whites will come to support Obama during the general election campaign against McCain. Simply put, these numbers are not static.

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2) "Obama's race may well explain his difficulty in winning over white voters. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, participants were asked to answer questions on a variety of race-related topics including racial preferences, interracial marriage, attitudes toward social welfare and general attitudes toward African-Americans. Respondents were grouped according to their answers on a 'Racial Resentment Index.'"

-- It seems that those with high racial resentment are less likely to support Obama than those with low racial resentment. Surprise, surprise. Those with high racial resentment tend to be poorly educated, elderly, and from the South. Surprise, surprise, surprise. It's called racism. There are some voters who simply will not vote for a black candidate, or at least who have a racial preference for white candidates over black ones.

There isn't all that much Obama can do about this other than to try to reach out to so-called working-class whites on the issues that matter to them, such as the economy -- issues that are universal, not racial. He will have the general election campaign to win over those whites who are currently against him but who are neither bigots nor partisan Republicans (or both). Given how well he has done among independents and Republicans, and given the broad and inspirational appeal of his message of hope and change, and of the substantive policy platform that backs it up, he could eat substantially into McCain's current support.

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3) "Confusion over Obama's religious background may also be hindering his ability to attract white support. Asked to name Obama's faith, 58 percent of participants said Christian (the correct answer), compared with 11 percent who answered Muslim, 22 percent who did not know and 9 percent who said something else."

-- Thanks, Newsweek, for enlightening us with "the correct answer." It is simply appalling that so many registered voters -- so many Americans -- do not know it. (Even after the whole Wright saga.) This is ignorance, but there is no doubt a good deal of anti-Muslim bigotry behind it. As Obama continues to present himself to voters, and as more voters begin to tune into politics during the general election campaign, there should be a reduction in the overall level of ignorance. There are some voters who will vote against him because of, or in part because of, his middle name or his family history, but, again, he will have the general election campaign to win over those whites who are ignorant but not bigoted (and, where possible, to get through to some of the bigots).

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So, yes, white-on-black racism is still a problem, as is anti-Muslim bigotry, and each problem is an obstacle for Obama. There are some voters, to repeat, who simply will not vote for him in November. However, America has come a long way, and the problem of racism at least is not what it used to be.

There is no reason to believe that Obama will not be able to overcome.

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