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White Liberals Have Cooled on Obama -- Does Race Have Anything to Do With It?

Melissa Harris-Perry argues that we're seeing a "more subtle form of racism." But David Sirota counters that it's not racism but Obama's right-wing policies that are to blame.

Editor's Note: In the story below, The Nation's Melissa Harris-Perry argues that some white liberals are holding Obama to a very different standard than they applied to Bill Clinton and other centrist Democrats, and concludes that “it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.”

The story, "Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama," stirred quite a bit of controversy this week. On the one hand, polls show that Obama has seen a similar decline in support among all ethnic and racial groups—including African Americans. It's also difficult to isolate race as the primary variable in liberal support for Obama today and Bill Clinton in the 1990s – the latter enjoyed a booming economy whereas Obama's political fortunes are inextricably tied to the Great Recession.

On the other hand, as Harris-Perry notes, it is “a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to 'prove' that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility.” She adds, “the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt” – it's a difficult point to refute.

So, we're leaving it up to our readers to evaluate the merits of these arguments. In addition to Harris-Perry's original piece, below that we offer “ Why White Liberals Are (Really) Ditching Obama” by David Sirota which appeared on Salon.


Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama

by Melissa Harris-Perry, published by  The Nation

Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate's qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.

The 2004 Illinois Senate race between Obama and Alan Keyes, two African-Americans, was a unique test of the persistence of old-fashioned electoral racism. For a truly committed electoral racist, neither Obama nor Keyes would have been acceptable--regardless of policy positions, biography or qualification--because both were black.

One way to determine how many people felt this way is to measure the "roll-off." In presidential election years, a small percentage vote for the president, but then "roll off" by not casting ballots for state and local offices. A substantial increase in roll-off--larger than usual numbers of voters who picked John Kerry or George Bush but declined to choose between Obama and Keyes--would have been a measure of the unwillingness of some to vote for any black candidate. I tested this in 2004 and found no increase, statistical or substantive, in roll-off in Illinois. Faced with two black candidates, white voters were willing to choose one of them.

The 2008 general election was another referendum on old-fashioned electoral racism--this time among Democratic voters. The long primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama had the important effect of registering hundreds of thousands of Democrats. By October 2008, it was clear that Obama could lose the general election only if a substantial portion of registered Democrats in key states failed to turn out or chose to cross party lines. For Democrats to abandon their nominee after eight years of Bush could be interpreted only as an act of electoral racism.

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