Obama's Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America

Obama's Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America

by Michael Tesler, David O. Sears

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Barack Obama’s presidential victory naturally led people to believe that the United States might finally be moving into a post-racial era. Obama’s Race—and its eye-opening account of the role played by race in the election—paints a dramatically different picture.

The authors argue that the 2008 election was more polarized by racial attitudes than any other presidential election on record—and perhaps more significantly, that there were two sides to this racialization: resentful opposition to and racially liberal support for Obama. As Obama’s campaign was given a boost in the primaries from racial liberals that extended well beyond that usually offered to ideologically similar white candidates, Hillary Clinton lost much of her longstanding support and instead became the preferred candidate of Democratic racial conservatives. Time and again, voters’ racial predispositions trumped their ideological preferences as John McCain—seldom described as conservative in matters of race—became the darling of racial conservatives from both parties. Hard-hitting and sure to be controversial, Obama’s Race will be both praised and criticized—but certainly not ignored.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226793849
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2010
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 900 KB

About the Author

Michael Tesler is a graduate student in political science at UCLA. David O. Sears is distinguished professor of psychology and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of numerous books.

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The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-79382-5

Chapter One


Race in Presidential Elections

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.... So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves have never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. BARACK OBAMA, "A More Perfect Union," campaign speech, Philadelphia, March 18, 2008

The above analysis from Barack Obama of how racial resentments helped shape the American political landscape of the preceding decades was quite astute. Our results showing that similar attitudes profoundly affected people's opinions about him in 2008 are, in fact, situated within a long line of social science research detailing the centrality of race in contemporary partisan politics (see Hutchings and Valentino 2004 for a review). Much of that research is based upon the theory of symbolic racism, which has become the focal construct for explaining the role of racial attitudes in American politics. This chapter briefly reviews the existing literature on the role of racial attitudes in American presidential elections, then details the meaning and measurement of symbolic racism, and finally describes both the statistical methods and the sources of evidence used in our study to discern the impact of racial attitudes on Barack Obama's campaigns for the Democratic nomination and the White House.

Racial Issues in American Presidential Elections

Racial issues have had quite a variable history in American presidential elections. That history can be briefly characterized in terms of four eras. Perhaps their strongest influence came in the elections of 1860, when they triggered the Civil War, and in 1864, when military successes barely counteracted racial antagonism, overcoming widespread Northern sentiment for a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy and so allowing Lincoln's reelection. Lincoln's actions to end chattel slavery made him known over the years as "the Great Emancipator" and the Republican Party became known as "the party of Lincoln." The efforts of the Radical Republicans of Reconstruction to help freed slaves further cemented the political party's pro-black legacy.

A second era began with the Compromise of 1877. Put simply, that agreement traded an end to the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the military occupation of the South for Republican control of the White House. The compromise also resulted in a general withdrawal of the Republican Party from Southern politics. Both political parties, and both sections of the country, had been exhausted by the violent confrontations of markedly different racial cultures during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Thereafter, racial issues had little visibility in presidential elections until after World War II. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt's generally liberal New Deal, with its electoral base in Northern industrial states, was so dependent on Southern Democratic congressional support that it was unable to promote civil rights. He accomplished little even on issues that today seem inarguable, such as antilynching legislation or the extension of Social Security benefits to such disproportionately black groups as poor farm workers and household help.

Some early foreshadowing of renewed attention to racial issues began with disputes in the Democratic convention of 1948 over President Harry S Truman's executive order to racially integrate the armed forces. The resulting walkout of conservative Southerners led to the Dixiecrat candidacy of Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, which captured nearly enough Southern votes to take victory from the incumbent Democrat. Truman's successors as Democratic nominees, Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, like FDR, were unwilling to risk further schisms within the party, and both selected Southern running mates. In that era, the American public generally perceived little difference between the national parties or their presidential candidates in support for civil rights.

A third and radically different era began in 1963. Northern Democrats, in some cases eagerly and in other cases unwillingly, asserted leadership in promoting civil rights. The turning point came in June 1963 with the Kennedy administration's confrontation with Governor George Wallace over the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and then Kennedy's widely heralded proposal of major civil rights legislation. Within the next year, this was followed by Kennedy's assassination; a nearly total regional split within the Democratic party over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked by the longest but ultimately unsuccessful filibuster in American history, mounted by all but one of the Southern Democratic senators; the beginnings of Southern Democratic defection to the Republican party; and finally the selection of a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act, Senator Barry Goldwater, as the Republican presidential nominee against its most visible supporter, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson won in a landslide. But the Democratic party had become deeply split internally over race, and the repolarization of the two parties over racial issues had begun anew, after nearly a century of quiescence.

In the years to come, the Democratic Party splintered further over racial issues, with Southern and working class whites especially likely to defect. In 1968, George Wallace's third-party candidacy rode white racial backlash to victory in five Southern states. Thereafter, Richard Nixon and his Republican successors began to successfully deploy "the Southern strategy" to attract disaffected white Southern Democrats by appealing to racial conservatism. Following Nixon's election in 1968, the Republicans were not seriously challenged from the Right on racial issues. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates ran on explicitly pro-civil rights platforms. Even the Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter's brief administration promoted further civil rights liberalism. As a result, most scholars of voting behavior agree that a gradual party realignment occurred following 1968, centrally on the basis of racial issues, with many racially conservative whites permanently defecting from the Democrats to the Republicans.

The fourth and more complex contemporary era began with the election of 1980. Ronald Reagan, a long-time opponent of civil rights and supporter of "states' rights," appealed to racially conservative Southern whites even more explicitly than Nixon had. He gave his first major campaign speech as the GOP nominee in Philadelphia, Mississippi, near the site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, and invoked the historically racially loaded phrase of "states' rights." But he also drew support from Southern conservatives over tax cuts, a strong national defense, and his alliances with increasingly politicized religious conservatives.

Later campaigns perpetuated the prominence of racial issues. Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign in 1984 accelerated the departure of Southern whites from the Democratic Party (Sears, Citrin, and Kosterman 1987). In 1988, Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, employed racially provocative materials about the case of a violent black criminal, Willie Horton, to attack liberal Democratic crime policies (Mendelberg 2001). In the 1990s, the Southern Democrat, Bill Clinton, although quite popular among African Americans, began to distance himself from traditional black leaders, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and from liberal policies with implicitly racial implications in the areas of welfare and crime.

In short, elections in the pre-Obama contemporary era, stretching from 1980 through 2004, maintained the party polarization over racial issues that had begun in the 1960s. However, the parties were polarized over a series of other issues described below, complicating the specification of the exact role of race in this era.

Voters' Choices in the Contemporary Era

There have been several explanations posited by voting behavior researchers for the Republican Party's electoral successes in the period from Reagan's first election to Obama's presidential victory. Perhaps the most common is that the Democratic Party had become too ideologically liberal for the center of the electorate by the end of the 1970s. The federal government in the following decade became viewed increasingly vocally by Republicans as an inefficient manager of societal issues relative to market solutions. As such, "big government" and "tax and spend liberals" became shibboleths that Reagan and his followers wielded with great success (Kaufmann and Petrocik 1999; Petrocik 1987).

Nonracial social and cultural issues such as abortion, women's rights, and the sexual revolution have also increasingly divided the two parties in the contemporary era (Adams 1997; Edsall 2006). Cultural conservatism in all those forms became increasingly entwined with religion too. In recent years, religiosity has become one of the most powerful predictors of presidential voting choices. The most devout and observant of all faiths support Republicans, and the less devout or secular, Democrats (Brewer and Stonecash 2007; Fiorina 2006; Green and Dionne 2008; Gelman 2010; Leege et al. 2002).

Still, several other careful studies have focused on socioeconomic status, documenting an increased polarization of the parties by income, with affluent voters more Republican (Bartels 2008; Gelman 2010; McCarty et al. 2006). Bartels (2008), for example, convincingly shows that traditional class-based voting remains alive and well in the contemporary era despite the emergence of highly visible social issues that have the potential to divide culturally conservative low-income voters from their presumed economic interests (Lipset 1960; Frank 2004). Indeed, low-income voters' presidential preferences in 2004 were considerably more influenced by economic than cultural issues, while high-income voters showed no such differentiation.

The nonracial factors of general ideological conservatism, cultural issues, and social class were all surely important determinants of voters' choices in the 2008 election. Our study's main goal, however, is to explain the role of racial attitudes in the election of America's first black president. That primary goal naturally steers our analysis away from such nonracial matters and toward the role of race in partisan politics during the years leading up to Obama's election. So how exactly did racial attitudes help shape the national political landscape that Barack Obama entered as the keynote speaker for the 2004 Democratic National Convention?

There is little dispute about the close link of racial attitudes to candidate evaluations and partisan political choices in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Carmines and Stimson (1989) made a strong case that the parties realigned around racial issues in the era from the early 1960s to 1980. More contested are interpretations of voters' presidential choices in the contemporary era. Some argue that Americans had largely moved "beyond race" by the late 1980s. Dinesh d'Souza (1995) wrote The End of Racism, and Paul Sniderman and his colleagues (1993, 1997) concluded that by the early 1990s, racial prejudice had become a minor political force. Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O'Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006), and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.

Kinder and Sanders (1996) then developed the most in-depth empirical examination of the role of racial animosity in contemporary partisan political decision making. They found that resentment of African Americans was a key factor in promoting whites' opposition to both racially targeted policies and Democratic presidential candidates in the 1988 election. Mendelberg (2001) further showed that George H. W. Bush introduced racial antagonism into the 1988 campaign and that his racial appeals successfully attracted racially conservative voters. Elsewhere we have presented evidence that race continued to be centrally implicated in the realignment of white Southerners' partisanship and their growing support for Republican presidential candidates through the end of the twentieth century and into the early years of the twenty-first century (Valentino and Sears 2005, 2008).

This previous research indicates that racial predispositions occupied a focal place in modern-day partisan politics before Barack Obama rose to national prominence. Yet we will argue that during the 2008 campaign the electorate was even more divided by their attitudes about African Americans than they had been at any other time in the contemporary era-and a great deal more politically polarized as well. Our central hypothesis is that Barack Obama's identity as an African American made his race chronically accessible to the vast majority of Americans throughout the 2008 campaign. That is, the simple perceptual salience of his race insured that racial predispositions would be unusually central to voters' evaluations of him. In later chapters we will show this close link of racial predispositions to Obama evaluations in 2008. But part of our argument is also historical-that this link of a presidential candidate to racial attitudes was of unprecedented strength compared to previous presidential elections, quite the opposite of signaling a "post-racial" era.

Types of Prejudice

How, then, did we test our racial accessibility theory? This was the most crucial challenge that faced us. We started by considering the conceptualization and measurement of racial prejudice.

White Supremacy: Old-Fashioned Racism

In the 1840s, the abolitionist challenge to slavery had rattled the Southern slave-owning class. Both in England and in the United States, public sentiment was slowly turning against the institution of slavery. According to Frederickson (1971), the challenge inspired the development of an ideology of white supremacy, based on pseudoscientific notions about the inherent inequality of the races. This was later reinforced by the social Darwinist movement of the late nineteenth century and then by a paternalistic racism common among Progressives in the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the ideas of inherent, genetically based inequality and its links to segregationist policy were firmly established. Nationally representative surveys found that a substantial majority of whites throughout the country subscribed to the ideology of white supremacy, including social distance between the races, beliefs in the biological inferiority of blacks, and approval of public policies insuring racial segregation and formalized discrimination (Schuman et al. 1997). In later research, this racist ideology has variously been called "old-fashioned racism," "Jim Crow racism," or "redneck racism" (Bobo and Kluegel 1997; McConahay et al. 1981; McConahay and Hough 1976; McConahay 1986). For simplicity, we will use just the first of these terms.

Gunnar Myrdal's pivotal book, An American Dilemma (1944), emphasized the roots of such old-fashioned racism in the lethal combination of irrational racial prejudice and whites' self-interest in maintaining their own superior privileges. But Myrdal stressed the contradiction of old-fashioned racism with the egalitarian norms that were presumably the legacy of the founders of the nation. He felt that contradiction was ultimately unstable (as had Alexis de Tocqueville [1835/1969], writing on the eve of the eruption of the abolitionist movement). After World War II, old-fashioned racism did indeed decline, accompanied by a growing acceptance of principles of racial equality, at least in the abstract. By the 1990s, any indications of widespread old-fashioned racism had almost disappeared (Schuman et al. 1997).


Excerpted from OBAMA'S RACE by MICHAEL TESLER DAVID O. SEARS Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Obama as Post-Racial?

Chapter 1: Background: Race in Presidential Elections

Chapter 2: Racialized Momentum: The Two Sides of Racialization in the Primaries

Chapter 3: The General Election: The Two Sides of Racialization and Short-Term Political Dynamics

Chapter 4: The Spillover of Racialization

Chapter 5: The Racialized Voting Patterns of Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Chapter 6: The Paradox of Gender Traditionalists’ Support for Hillary Clinton

Chapter 7: Beyond Black and White: Obama as “Other”

Chapter 8: Is the Obama Presidency Post-Racial? Evidence from His First Year in Office





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