Obama, Cain, and racism
Oct 26, 2011

Obama, Cain, and racism

When Barack Obama was elected to be the 44th President of the United States, the simple fact that he is black was itself symbolic, momentous and meaningful. As Obama was a member of the Democratic party, there remained some question as to whether a black man could be elected to lead the Republicans. With Herman Cain's ascendancy to the status of first tier contender for the GOP presidential nominee, it remains likewise a symbolic victory for black rights and demonstrates the progress made. Nonetheless, problems with racism remain significant and much of the comentary over this issue has been lacking.

There was a time in our history when race was an absolute and immutable factor, where people would never consider letting their kids go to school with a black person much less vote for them. Today, thankfully, they are far less so egregiously racist. Racism today remains poignant but it exists in a somewhat more tempered form. It is one factor that infuences people, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, but it exists in competition with other preferences that people have. Sometimes it will win out as a factor and sometimes it will not.

For instance, an employer may, without knowing it, be marginally more likely to hire a white candidate with equivalent credentials. This is racism. However, it isn't an absolute trump any more because the employer may still hire many high credentialed blacks.

In this sense, Cain's popularity doesn't disprove that there is some real issues with racism in the GOP base and the population at large. Cain is clearly very likeable and is saying things that appeal to the GOP base. These other factors can dominate the racism factor in this case without disproving the existence of the racism factor. It is simply no longer the trump it used to be.

There is an unfortunate and narrow minded dynamic on both sides that often occurs. People on the left accuse the right of having a dangerous racist streak to it and those on the right work hard to demonstrate the falsehood of the claim. Herman Cain's ascendancy in the poll has been repeatedly trumpeted as proof or at least evidence of falsehood of the left's claims; clearly the right is not now so racist that being black is an absolute disqualifier.

Much like Obama before him, it does set an upper limit on how influential the racism factor is. It clearly is nowhere close to the trump card it used to be, even if there is still a long way to go. Sometimes the fringe left can get a little over zealous in its calls of Republican racism because it finds it to be the perfect pejorative. Likewise, the right can strawman the lefts more reasonable comments about racism into something extreme than is claimed. Instead, we should recognize that despite the undeniable symbolism of progress which I do not wish to diminish, there remain very large problems with racism in general, and racism in politics in particular, that have not been magically disproved because of a popular black candidate.

It remains an open question, I think, the degree to which the over-zealous hatred of Obama, which certainly does exist among various groups, has racial undertones to it. This is a difficult question to answer quantitatively, but I think it is fair to suggest it has a nonzero influence. One can point, perhaps, to the egregious statistics of belief that Obama is a Muslim or not born in the US, facts to which there was no reasonable comparison for Clinton or Carter. It is nearly impossible to imagine these ridiculous nonsense claims spreading about a white president.

It can be quite difficult to pin down racism in general, based on a host of reasons that I have previously sketched. People in today's day and age are very cognizant of the fact that they can not be overtly racist. Any political pundit and even the majority of people at rallies and the like are aware they cannot make a sign that implies Obama is a bad president because he is black. However, they can dredge up a host of seemingly non-racial political reasons for their hatred towards him that while not mentioning race seems to have a ferver to it that is disturbing.

Much of the conversation about racism ought to focus on the more quantifiable factors that identify real divides based on groups in our societies such as wealth, education, political engagement, crime, and a long list of other factors. One can make very convincing arguments in this manner for the institutational racism that results from certain policies. However, while it is much more difficult and much less convincing to be able to sketch some of these broader questions about, say the role of racism among some haters of Obama, there is still some value in taking up or at least being cognizant of these questions.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Elipsis said...

Remember that Herman Cain is [i]blacker[/i] than Obama. Being a blacker man will allow him to out-black the president during debates.

But the real question is - have you seen Herman Cain's birth certificate?

bazie said...

ffs, are you telling me that Obama can't even get being black right? ;)

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