How Race Can Help Obama

And why an Obama win wouldn’t be a victory over racial prejudice.

Barack Obama

On Election Day, if current polls hold true, hundreds of thousands of racists will vote for Barack Obama. In fact, if the election is close in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Virginia, one could argue that the support of people who have at least some degree of prejudice against blacks could hand Obama a victory.

The implications of this are stunning: Far from costing Obama the election, as some have argued, race may not be much of a factor in people’s decisions—even those with negative attitudes toward blacks. It then follows, however, that his election may not represent the victory over racism many of his supporters hoped it would.

On the face of it, it seems at best absurd, and at worst offensive, to argue against the relevance of race in the first general election in U.S. history featuring an African-American candidate for president. But recent polls, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest that other issues may trump race this year.

The biggest recent survey to deal with race, conducted by Stanford University and the Associated Press, asked voters how closely they associated certain words and phrases—such as law-abiding, violent, and lazy—with blacks. About 40 percent of whites identified strongly at least one negative adjective describing blacks. Of those whites, 24 percent said they would still vote for Obama, while 55 percent said they’d vote for McCain. Of the whites who did not identify strongly any of the negative adjectives about blacks, 41 percent would vote for Obama—about even with the percentage who would vote for McCain.

It may well be too much to call the whites who cited negative adjectives about blacks “racist.” (Not to mention differentiating between “symbolic racism,” “modern racism,” “racial resentment,” or “laissez-faire racism.”) But it does serve as a rough indicator of prejudice. It also indicates that negative feelings toward blacks don’t necessarily translate into negative feelings toward Obama.

A new Gallup poll, meanwhile, suggests that negative feelings toward Obama’s race are neutralized—and possibly even outweighed—by positive ones. In this survey, the vast majority of voters—both black and white—said his race made no difference to them. But 6 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him, while 9 percent said it made them more likely to. Among whites alone, the numbers were 7 percent “less likely” and 6 percent “more likely.” In other words, race cancels itself out.

The reasoning behind the numbers may be more elusive. The most obvious reason for people with negative views of blacks to vote for Obama is the economy. There’s anecdotal evidence that people otherwise averse to voting for a black candidate are considering Obama because the economy is so bad. (Here’s more such evidence.) This week’s Time cover story reports that the economy has replaced race as the key factor in the election. Then there’s partisanship. Strong identification with Democrats might trump strong feelings toward blacks among many voters. (Click here to see why racism is a bigger factor among Democrats than among Republicans.)

There’s also Obama’s perceived exceptionalism—unlike most American blacks, he’s not descended from slaves, and his childhood and upbringing were atypical of the American black (or white, for that matter) experience. Some have interpreted this to mean he’s not really black. But that hasn’t hurt his support among African-Americans, and it may have the effect of allowing whites with racist beliefs to justify voting for him: They can tell themselves he’s actually half-white.

But even that might be too pessimistic. Research shows that feelings among whites toward African-Americans in general have little relationship to their feelings toward African-American politicians. “If I think most blacks are lazy, and I find myself with someone in front of me who I know has worked very hard and is black, I’ll respond at least as positively as I would to a white—or more positively if I’m conservative,” says Paul Sniderman, a Stanford political scientist. In a 1987 experiment, Sniderman discovered that conservatives were more likely than liberals to think blacks were lazy—but that they made an exception when they encountered hardworking blacks. (He later published his finding in The Scar of Race.)

People talk about racial prejudice as a trump card—as if it somehow outweighs all other considerations. This isn’t the case, says David Wilson, a University of Delaware professor conducting a survey on race and the presidential election. It’s just part of a mix of factors people weigh, consciously or not. So when people tell pollsters that race is a factor in their decision and then vote against Obama, as they did in the Pennsylvania primary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that race was the deciding factor. It may have been one of many.

So inevitably, people with racial resentment will still vote for Obama. “It’s like saying I might hate my boss, but I’m still going to work there. I hate my neighbors, but I’m still going to live in the neighborhood. I hate my life, but I’m not going to kill myself,” says Wilson.

It’s good news, certainly, that Obama’s race may not hurt him as much as many expected. But the flip side is that his victory wouldn’t necessarily mark a milestone in the battle against racism. As one normally astute commentator wrote: “We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives.” Hardly. An Obama win would just mean that people with negative feelings toward African-Americans set them aside because of more pressing issues like partisanship or health care or the economy.

Another reason a black president won’t mean the end of racism: the Obama Card. For years to come, racists everywhere—not to mention defensive liberals—will be able to respond to charges of racism with four words: I voted for Obama. It will be the ultimate cover. In fact, some anti-Obama groups are already preying on this notion, targeting voters who might be thinking about voting for Obama because he’s black. “I’m sorry to tell you that voting for Obama does not absolve you of racism, it may even confirm it,” reads one anonymous letter distributed in a Northern Virginia suburb. Geraldine Ferraro couldn’t have said it worse when she claimed Obama is “very lucky” to be black. But the kernel of truth in her statement was that some voters do see Obama’s race as a positive. And they may vote for him to deny or atone for their own racial prejudices.

To be sure, an Obama victory would go a long way toward debunking stereotypes, providing a role model for African-Americans, and upending the identity politics associated with many black politicians. Electing a black president would, in an instant, change the way the country sees itself, and how other countries see us. But it wouldn’t signal the end of racism any more than did the first black baseball player or the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Racism and prejudice survived their achievements, just as it will outlast Obama’s—regardless of whether he loses or wins.