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Race Matters

June 20, 2012

White Americans don’t like to elect African-Americans to high office.  We know this because they do it so rarely.

The 100 sitting United States senators include no African-Americans.  In our history, we have elected only three African-American senators:  Edward Brooke from Massachusetts, and Carol Mosely Braun and Barack Obama from Illinois.  Three other African-Americans became senators other than by popular election, most recently Roland Burris of Illinois.  The senate has never had two African-American members at the same time.

The 50 sitting governors include just one African-American, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.  In our history, we have elected only one other African-American state governor:  Douglas Wilder of Virginia.  Two other African-Americans served as unelected governors:  one for 35 days in the 1870s, and, more recently, David Paterson of New York.

The sitting mayors of what are currently our ten largest cities include no African-Americans.  No African-American has been elected mayor of any of those cities since Lee Brown was re-elected Mayor of Houston in 2001.  Four of our ten largest cities have never had an African-American mayor:  Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and San Jose.  The other six have elected exactly one African-American mayor each, although at least two other African-Americans have succeeded to office other than by election (Eugene Sawyer of Chicago and Dwaine Carroway of Dallas).

African-Americans have done somewhat better in the House of Representatives:  41 of 435 sitting representatives are African-American.  I leave it to someone else to figure out how many represent districts where the electorate is not primarily African-American.  Congressional districts, unlike states, can be gerrymandered so that African-American candidates can be elected without having to move the mountain of the white vote.  In all of American history, African-American members of the House have come from 24 states – meaning that a majority of the 50 states have never elected an African-American to the House of Representatives.

The highest positions in the corporate world are only just barely less begrudgingly entrusted to African-Americans than in the political world.  Fortune 500 companies have been run by only 13 African-American CEOs.  Seven served in the past; six others are serving now – or will be serving next month, after Don Thompson takes the CEO’s chair at McDonald’s.

The exclusion of African-Americans from positions of high responsibility is persistent, long-standing, and pervasive.  With white voters constituting a majority of the electorate, the responsibility for this exclusion must fall on white voters.  In our 236-year history as a country, the willingness of white voters to entrust high office to African-Americans has progressed only from statistically nil to statistically trivial.

The scope of what Barack Obama achieved in 2008 and what he is attempting to achieve in 2012 can only be appreciated in this context.  In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of the African-American vote, 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 62 percent of the Asian-American vote, but only 43 percent of the white vote.    Because white voters are a majority of the electorate for now, landslide-scale margins among African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American voters translated to a modest overall vote margin of just over seven percent.  A recent Gallup poll showed Obama’s margin slipping a notch among African-Americans and rising a tick among Hispanic voters.  (Gallup didn’t separately report on Asian-American voters.)  But Gallup shows Obama’s share of the white vote down six percent – which translates to a drop of five percent in Obama’s overall vote – from a comfortable win in the popular vote in 2008 to a too-close-to-call poll this month.

Race in America is a complicated subject.  Racial prejudices are complex and nuanced because the human mind is complex and nuanced.  A person can hold prejudices without being consciously aware of them, prejudices that contradict conscious beliefs, and prejudices that are mutually contradictory.  People who have themselves experienced racial prejudice can hold their own racial prejudices.  And prejudice can be internalized – a person can hold prejudices about the person’s own race.

In the case of African-Americans, it is clear that many white Americans hold prejudices that point them to the conclusion that African-Americans are incapable or unworthy of holding high office.

For a person who holds such a prejudice, consciously or otherwise, the fact that Barack Obama is the president causes cognitive dissonance:  an African-American can’t be president, but President Obama is African-American.  One resolution of the dissonance is to deny that Obama is the president, at least legitimately.  Thence came the birthers, who are certain without benefit of evidence that President Obama is not an American citizen and therefore not legally the president.

Another resolution of the dissonance is to treat Obama as if he were not the president.  Thence came Joe Wilson’s infamous shout-out during Obama’s September 9, 2009 address to a joint session of Congress:  “You lie!”  It is common enough to publicly accuse a president of lying.  It is a bigger deal to say so to the president’s face.  It was an even bigger deal – entirely unprecedented – for a member of Congress to do so from the floor of the House, while the President was speaking.  Consciously or otherwise, Congressman Wilson treated President Obama as one would treat a person of lesser position.  Wilson thus mitigated the dissonance between his belief that an African-American can’t be president and the presence before him of an African-American president.

Neil Munro engaged in the same resolution of the same cognitive dissonance when he interrupted President Obama’s remarks to reporters in the Rose Garden last week.  Never before had a reporter stood up in the middle of a presidential statement to shout questions.  Of the many hundreds of comments submitted on this story to the on-line New York Times, the most popular one was from Bill, of Madison, Connecticut, who said, “They believe because he’s black, he deserves no respect.”

For people who believe that African-Americans are incapable or unworthy of holding high office, Barack Obama’s presidency is an assault on their understanding of the world.  Addressing President Obama disrespectfully – pointedly without the deference that has traditionally been afforded to presidents – is one way such a person can defend against that assault.  Other ways are opposing everything President Obama says or does, calling him a socialist or a post-colonial Kenyan thinker, and risking harm to the country in order to deny President Obama a claim to success.

  1. Elisabeth permalink

    This is clearly and vigorously argued and I hope your statement gets the attention it deserves!


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