Framing Barack Obama and Black Voters

April sent me a link to this CNN article titled “Is black America Ready to Embrace Obama?” I just wanted to point out the absurdity of the “story highlights” listed at the top of the page. There seems to be an assumption that black people should like Obama and vote for him because he’s black–as if his other policies don’t matter at all.

The article starts with highlights:

• In a new poll, Obama leads Clinton 44 to 33 percent among black voters

• Some blacks doubt that Obama understands their experience

• Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, is the Senate’s only black member

• Polls say blacks are less likely to believe America is ready for a black president

Are you missing the irony here? The title seems to imply that Black Americans are skeptical of Obama, but then points out that 44% of Blacks favor Obama, in a race where there are a bazillion candidates. He leads everyone else, but people are questioning whether or not Blacks are loyal to Obama? The doubt angle is reiterated in the second “highlight,” and then the last highlight seems to reinforce Black Americans’ doubt in Obama, which is expanded in the text:

Blacks, in part, may be slow to warm to the candidacy of Obama because, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll suggests, they are less likely than whites to believe that America is ready for a black president.

The poll, conducted December 5-7, 2006, found that 65 percent of whites thought America was ready, compared with 54 percent of blacks. The poll’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

I think they are missing the point here; just because people may think the US is not ready for a Black candidate, doesn’t mean that they are not willing to vote for a Black candidate. My perception is that the vast majority of Black Americans are ready for a black President, but most Black Americans believe that many White Americans are not ready for a black President. (I tend to agree.) So I think reporters are confusing skepticism about whites willingness to accept a black President with skepticism about Obama himself.

The article goes on to suggest that Black Americans are skeptical of Obama because:

Part of Obama’s problem with black voters is that he is viewed by whites as the first black candidate with a legitimate shot at the White House.

“When white America has embraced a candidate — as they have with Barack Obama — there is a certain amount of distrust that goes with this among a number of African Americans,” Wilson said.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Obama acknowledged the dynamic:

“In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” Obama said. “By virtue of my background, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”

I am sure that there are a few blacks who feel this way, but I think this is an over-generalization that has been perpetuated by many media outlets.

This is the same problem we see time and time again with the media coverage of Obama and Black voters. Many people seem to be perplexed as to why black voters are not flocking to Obama in droves, and then they are shocked that black voters are deliberative, taking time to analyze Obama’s positions.

Imagine the tables were turned, and we were talking about John Edwards or Hillary Clinton. I personally would hope that we would see the same “highlights:”

• In a new poll, Edwards/Clinton leads Obama 44 to 33 percent among black voters

• Some blacks doubt that Edwards/Clinton understands their experience

Why am I not seeing those stories, particularly for Edwards and the other white male candidates (and to a lesser extent Clinton)? Maybe that’s because people are surprised that Barack Obama isn’t automatically getting Black support (although as Black voters learn more about Obama, he is garnering more support), but the recent statewide elections in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland should have shown that black voters don’t just run willy nilly to the first Black candidate that comes along. Maybe these reporters believe only whites have to prove themselves to black voters. Would we ask similar questions to white voters–why are you skeptical of John Edwards; do you feel he’s not white enough? Why are you voting for Obama when there are several other white candidates? Either way the assumption is really unfair, and it reveals some unfortunate racial double standards.

I wish the mainstream media could just accept the fact black voters don’t automatically vote for Black candidates. Perhaps black voters care more about policies than they do about a candidate’s racial identity. Now isn’t that a novel idea, voting on policy.

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12 Responses to Framing Barack Obama and Black Voters

  1. 1
    Ampersand says:

    Good post.

    This reminds me of the silly expectation that feminists will automatically be voting for Hilary.

  2. Pingback: Barack Obama » Barack Obama March 1, 2007 1:59 am

  3. 2
    Sailorman says:

    Rachel S. | February 28th, 2007

    April sent me a link to this CNN article titled “Is black America Ready to Embrace Obama?” I just wanted to point out the absurdity of the “story highlights” listed at the top of the page. There seems to be an assumption that black people should like Obama and vote for him because he’s black–as if his other policies don’t matter at all.

    …I wish the mainstream media could just accept the fact black voters don’t automatically vote for Black candidates. Perhaps black voters care more about policies than they do about a candidate’s racial identity. Now isn’t that a novel idea, voting on policy.

    I’m not really sure it’s entirely the media’s fault.

    Remember things like, oh.. minority redistricting? racial apportionment? Methods designed to ensure that minorities were represented by minorities? Those are still hot button issues which get a lot of backing from courts and other groups.**

    Unsurprisingly, minorities in general have been supportive of such methods. Problem is, they also support a claim that there’s a “black way” to vote: after all, if a black and white candidate would both vote identically well, and both be equally capable of representing blacks and whites, there’d be no need to consider race in the equation at all.

    So when a big driving force in election law and election districting is race, it’s pretty unsurprising that a lot of folks will conclude “race matters.” I know you like to attack the equality view, but one of the benefits of it is that this sort of logical conclusion doesn’t happen.

    Not incidentally, I suspect that this affects whites and blacks who are otherwise undecided as well: if someone focuses on racial differences and claims I can’t represent them because I’m white, I’m skeptical of their ability to represent me if they’re not. That skepticism doesn’t develop because they’re nonwhite; if they were neutral on race then their race doesn’t matter. It develops because they think race does matter.

    So in my view, it’s not only a racial problem. It’s a public consistency problem.

    **A lot of the minority redistricting cases I have read were, in essence, designed to “fix” districts that were covertly drawn to disenfranchise minorities. A few highly publicized ones were not. In either case, I’m not trying to get into the issue of whether/when such action is justified. Rather, I’m talking about the media’s response to PUBLIC action. My point is that the media reacts more to overt action than covert action, which leads to a public consistency issue.

  4. 3
    RonF says:

    A lot of the minority redistricting cases I have read were, in essence, designed to “fix” districts that were covertly drawn to disenfranchise minorities. A few highly publicized ones were not.

    If you would like to see a particularly egregious example of the latter, go to here and click on the “preview” for Illinois District 4. A true gerrymander. The map makers wanted to make a “Hispanic” district.

  5. 4
    RonF says:

    I had a similar discussion with my pastor just today. The Episcopal Church just elected a female Presiding Bishop, the first Anglican Church to do so. There were a lot of reasons NOT to vote for her; she has been neither a priest nor a bishop all that long, she has never been a rector (the priest in charge of a parish), and in the period she was in charge of her diocese it’s membership fell off quite a bit.

    The general consensus was that there were a lot of people who voted for her mainly because she was a woman; the “liberals” because they thought that it was “a woman’s turn” or that “it will give a big boost to women”, and the “conservatives” because “this will give the final push towards a schism”. The idea that white/black/males/females should owe their loyalty to and vote for a candidate because they match those characteristics seems a real bad idea to me, and it seems that this is reflecting that. Good.

    There is a question that this raises – is Barak Obama “black”? Is he perceived that way? Why should or should not he market himself that way. Consider that another very famous person who unquestionably looks black takes pains to describe himself as “multiracial” instead; Tiger Woods. While Tiger isn’t running for office, his image has quite a bit to do with his public stature and income (he makes more money in endorsements than in golf winnings). Why would, or would not, Barak Obama bill himself as “multiracial” as well?

  6. 5
    Rachel S. says:

    Yeah, Amp I’m preparing a post directed at Daran’s–why aren’t feminists supporting Hillary post. That made me angry.

  7. 6
    Rachel S. says:

    Ron that district is horribly drawn; it doesn’t even look connected.

    For sailorman and RonF, I understand of creating majority black voting districts, but we all know that this would have never been done if whites were willing to elect blacks, and blacks hadn’t been disenfranchised in the first place.

    I don’t know of any House District that is majority white and is held by a black Congressperson? Can you? There was JC Watts a few years ago, and obviously Barack Obama is representing a predominantly white state, but as a Senator. I think that is the missing angle to this story.

  8. 7
    RonF says:

    Rachel, if you take a close look on the west end, there’s a very thin north-south segment connecting the two. It is hard to see.

    For sailorman and RonF, I understand of creating majority black voting districts, but we all know that this would have never been done if whites were willing to elect blacks, and blacks hadn’t been disenfranchised in the first place.

    Certainly there once was a time when that was true, but that time is well past. It’s interesting that all 3 black Senators that have been elected since reconstruction were elected out of states that were anywhere from 67% black white to 90%+. I’ve been trying to find a listing of the racial balances of all the individual states in one table, but no go.

    Actually, the Illinois Senatorial election of 2004 was historic. It was the first Senatorial election since Reconstruction where both major party candidates were black. It also proved that not all right-wing wingnuts are Caucasian.

    It’s worth questioning just how important the objective is of achieving a racial balance in our legislative bodies through gerrymandering is compared to other objectives. Illinois’ 4th congressional district is an extreme example. I have no particular problem with creating reasonably contiguous districts that also have majority-minority populations. The problem is defining “reasonably contiguous”. That sure as hell isn’t it. How much compromise of republican (note the small “r”) principles does racial balance justify?

    It’s one thing when minorities are actually disenfranchised. But these days, that doesn’t apply. What we have now is the inevitable effect of being a minority; there are going to be areas with significant numbers of minorities that are scattered to the point where there is no reasonable way to divide up the area in such a fashion as to create minority-majority districts. It becomes a math topology problem with no solution. The presumption is that if minorities are not present as members in a legislative body, then the minority population is not itself represented; I take that as false. They are represented by the people they helped elect. Even if that person is not the same race as they are, that legislator still represents them, and they have the rights of free speech and the ballot (and campaign contributions) to try to influence that legislator’s vote.

    I’ll have to pass on the question about the House districts; I just don’t know.

  9. 8
    Sailorman says:

    Rachel S. Writes:
    March 1st, 2007 at 6:02 pm
    …we all know that this would have never been done if whites were willing to elect blacks, and blacks hadn’t been disenfranchised in the first place.

    I absolutely agree.

    I am not trying to attack minority districts. I am merely pointing out that judges, congress, district apportioners, voters in the affected districts, people who run for office in the affected districts, and news folks who report on elections in the affected districts… Well, all those people are “buying in” to the concept that race is a huge determinant in BOTH voting AND representation. There’s no equivalently publicized phenomenon for the other “color neutral” side. And, as you note, the reality DOES seem to be taht people will vote based at least partly on race.

    So when i see the report you cited, it doesn’t seem odd at all. It seems sad, but based on the assumptions which are (to date) proven to be fairly true, it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

  10. 9
    RonF says:

    AAAGH! Amp, please edit post #8 from “67% black to 90%+. ” to “67% white to 90%+.” Changes the meaning just slightly …. Thanks!

    [Fixed! --Amp]

  11. 10
    RonF says:

    I still am curious as to why Barak Obama bills himself as black when he is a poster child for “multiracial”. Yes, I understand that if you look at him you think “black”, but the concept of multiracial is becoming advanced in America, we have famous people dependent on their image to succeed who present themselves as multiracial, and it would be an advance in this country’s political life, I think. Of course, Sen. Obama is going to do what he thinks is best to get himself elected, but I’m wondering what the thinking process is.

  12. 11
    lucia says:

    Actually, the Illinois Senatorial election of 2004 was historic. It was the first Senatorial election since Reconstruction where both major party candidates were black. It also proved that not all right-wing wingnuts are Caucasian.

    I’ll bite…. how did that race prove that not all right-wing wingnuts were Caucasian?

    I’ll admit that living in Dupage county, I do know right-wing non-Caucasians, but how did that election prove it? Keyes wasn’t nominated by blacks!