Race still influences elections

Is race a factor in American politics?

That has been a tough question to answer, because in recent decades, people have become unlikely to express openly their views on race. Academic analysis has found that people have a “tendency to withhold socially unacceptable attitudes.”

And, with the election of African-American Barack Obama as president, some people have come to believe that race as a political factor has disappeared.

But there are some clear indications that the historic American political issue of race remains alive.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act, which assured the equal rights of African-Americans, and promised federal government action to protect their rights. When he signed, he reportedly remarked that his action would turn the South over to the Republicans for a generation.

The South had always been solidly behind the Democratic Party, which favored segregation and white political supremacy. With few blacks voting, the southern white electorate could assure continual Democratic control.

But as the Democratic Party changed, including more of the newly enfranchised black voters, whites began moving out to breathe life into a sleepy GOP that under Lincoln had been the party responsible for freeing the slaves.

This year, in nine of the eleven states that formed the Confederacy, leading to the Civil War, there is no statewide major office holder – governor or senator – who is a Democrat. Next year, out of the 33 possible slots, only four will be filled by Democrats.

This political development is one sign that race still matters. In fairness, though, it must be noted that one of South Carolina’s GOP senators is an African-American.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently overruled Congress, which had determined that efforts, mostly in the South, to block African American voting still needed federal attention. A new study suggests the Court’s view is overly optimistic.

With seeking to find out if voters hold racist views by means of polling proving so unworkable, because of people’s reluctance to state openly their feelings on the matter, another way of looking at the presence of racist views had to be found.

A Google search is conducted by a person alone in front of the computer. It eliminates as an influence the wish to avoid a socially unacceptable action.

A study developed at Harvard University tabulated Google searches for racially inflammatory terms. Though the analysis was complicated, in simple terms it compared racist “hits” with voting behavior in the last three presidential elections.

The first result of the study was scoring each state and the District of Columbia. States were ranked in line with the results.

Interestingly, Maine ranked 32nd, right after California. Some 59 percent of California’s population is African-American, Asian or Hispanic, so it would be reasonable to expect less racial bias there. But, in Maine, those groups comprise less than four percent of the population. (For details, search Google for “Racial Animus and Voting” and this study will be listed.)

The central part of the study focused on whether racial attitudes affected the outcome of the recent presidential elections, assuming that when John Kerry, a white Democrat, ran in 2004, there was no reason for racial bias. The question was whether when Barack Obama, a black Democrat, ran in 2008 and 2012, racial bias showed up among the voters.

The study found “relative to the most racially tolerant areas in the United States, prejudice cost Obama 4.2 percentage points of the national popular vote in 2008 and 4.0 percentage points in 2012.”

In 2008, Obama won by a margin of 7 percent and, in 2012, by 4 percent. Without the racial element, his electoral vote might have approached landslide proportions.

He appeared to gain little from his race, because it is unlikely that white voters supported him because he was black. African-Americans, who represent a small part of the total vote, were already heavily Democratic supporters.

Undoubtedly, Obama’s election in 2008 was read by both black and white voters as indicating an improvement in race relations. About 64 percent of blacks saw improvement.

But, according to national polls, by 2011 attitudes were falling back to pre-Obama levels and, this month, only 35 percent of blacks thought race relations are good. The reaction of whites was similar but the swing was less wide.

Perhaps hopes were too high for how much change Obama could bring. But the GOP’s unwillingness to cooperate with him on virtually any major issue may have suggested to African Americans that there is a political desire to prevent a black president from ending up with a successful record.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.