News & Politics

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'sMelissa 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.

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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.

Not only did white Democratic voters prove willing to support a black candidate; they overperformed in their repudiation of naked electoral racism, electing Obama with a higher percentage of white votes than either Kerry or Gore earned. No amount of birther backlash can diminish the importance of these two election results. We have not landed on the shores of postracial utopia, but we have solid empirical evidence of a profound and important shift in America's electoral politics.

Still, electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama's healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the "don't ask, don't tell" policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare "reform," cutting off America's neediest despite the nation's economic growth.

Today, America's continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration. In terms of criminal justice, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; by contrast, federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton's first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers.

These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black.

In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46 to 53 percent, among blacks from 83 to 84 percent, among independents from 38 to 42 percent, and among whites from 39 to 43 percent.

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans--from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

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Why White Liberal Are (Really) Ditching Obama

by David Sirota, published bySalon

A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay that got me a much larger truckload of hate mail than usual. The piece concerned the persistent problem of denialism in parts of White America when it comes to race. I lamented how, despite media and political insinuations that whites have become an oppressed group, it is people of color -- and in particular, African-Americans -- who remain the real casualties of discrimination:

You can see [this racism] in black unemployment rates, which are twice as high as white unemployment rates -- a disparity that persists even when controlling for education levels. You can see it in a 2004 MIT study showing that job-seekers with "white names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews" than job seekers with comparable resumes and "African-American-sounding names." And you can see it in a news media that looks like an all-white country club and a U.S. Senate that includes no black legislators.

 I stand by my argument. It is a fact that the most problematic and widespread application of this denialism takes the form represented by white conservatives who angrily insist that racism against minorities is not only dead, but that African-Americans enjoy undue favoritism.

That said, as the 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest, we are seeing a new strain of fact-free denialism -- one that is not as dangerous as that coming from the right, but one that is nonetheless counterproductive to the cause of racial equality.

This iteration, exquisitely outlined in the Nation magazine last week by Tulane professor/MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry, insists that liberals' rising dissatisfaction with President Obama is primarily motivated not by the president's failure to pursue his campaign promises, his aggressive embrace ofBush policies he promised to oppose, his inexplicable fealty to the recession-creating oligarchs on Wall Street, or even the recession itself. Instead, the argument goes that, despite all these factors (factors which depressed enthusiasm in the past for white presidential candidates), and despite white liberals voting in droves for Obama in 2008, this progressive dissatisfaction is motivated by racism.

To support her thesis, Harris-Perry argues that bigotry can be seen in a supposed racist "double standard" whereby white liberals today "hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts." She writes:

If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama's healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the "don't ask, don't tell" policy Obama helped repeal....Today, America's continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration...

[These] are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms... One president is white. The other is black. [Obama's] record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

There's no doubt that modern racism does translate into White America as a whole often applying different standards to white and black public figures. (As just one example of that troubling dynamic, see this column I wrote during the 2008 election, noting that while Obama was hammered for his relationship with the black pastor Jeremiah Wright, the media ignored the fact that: a) "John McCain solicited the endorsement of John Hagee -- the pastor who called the Catholic Church 'a great whore,'" and b) Hillary Clinton both belongs to the "Fellowship" -- a secretive group "dedicated to 'spiritual war' on behalf of Christ" -- and is friendly with Billy Graham, the reverend caught on tape spewing anti-Semitism.)

However, just because double-standard racism exists, that doesn't mean it's the automatic, case-closed explanation for every political problem faced by African-American public figures -- especially politicians who are serving during recessions and who have made deliberate base-shattering decisions. Indeed, Harris-Perry's attempt to invoke the very real phenomenon of racist double standards as a means of explaining away President Obama's electoral troubles in 2012 willfully ignores a number of important facts.

First and foremost among these is the fact that President Clinton was not"enthusiastically re-elected," as Harris-Perry well knows. When Clinton triangulated against his liberal base with NAFTA, welfare reform and "don't ask, don't tell" (among other issues), he faced just as vociferous liberalcriticism as Obama does today, and in the very journals like the Nation for which Harris-Perry now writes.

As a result, America saw the opposite of "enthusiasm" in 1996 -- that presidential election, in fact, saw unprecedentedly low turnout. Additionally, Clinton -- after dissing his base -- won a meager 49 percent of the vote in that election, despite running against one of the weakest, least charismatic Republican presidential nominees in recent memory. In short, just as many white liberals were dissatisfied with a white president for abandoning the Democratic Party's base back in 1996, so too are many now dissatisfied with a black president for doing the same -- or, in many cases, worse.

That "worse" part is another issue that goes unmentioned in Harris-Perry's denialist screed. In many ways, President Obama's triangulation against the Democratic base has been far more blatant and overt than even Bill Clinton's was (though, again: many progressives -- including me -- were and remain as consistently critical of the substance of the Clinton record as they've been of the Obama record). The key point is that Obama is a president who hasn't merely tried but failed to achieve what he promised to achieve. He has deliberately and publicly worked to do the opposite of what he promised on key issues.

This is a president who as a candidate railed on adventurist wars andpromised to seek congressional authorization for new wars -- and then turnedaround and initiated new adventurist wars without congressional authorization.

Obama is also a man who criticized Bush-era civil liberties policies as a candidate and then as president not only extended those policies -- but, in many cases, actually made them worse. Among other things, he has pressed for longer Patriot Act extensions than congressional Republicansaddedbipartisan legitimacy to warrantless wiretapping (which he explicitly promised to end) and claimed autocratic powers that even the extremist Bush administration never dared to claim (for example, the power to assassinate American citizens without charge).

And let's not forget trade and healthcare. Candidate Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA and reform the corresponding free-trade template that has cost Americans so many jobs. He also repeatedly pledged to champion a public option to compete with private health insurers and promised to push for legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Now, President Obama is pushing a new series of NAFTA-like deals in Panama, South Korea and Colombia. And, as we now know, he didn't merely try but fail to pass a public option or the Medicare drug-negotiation provisions -- he actively used his power to eliminate those provisions from the final healthcare bill.

Taken together, we see that Obama -- as opposed to Clinton, who at least paid (often empty) rhetorical homage to liberalism -- has proudly and publicly stomped on the very progressive promises that got him elected.

By seeing this record and then explaining away declining liberal support for President Obama as a product of bigotry, Harris-Perry exhibits the ultimate form of both denialism and elitism. It assumes voters (and readers of the Nation) are all lockstep partisans who don't -- and shouldn't -- care about actual issues, public policies and governmental actions, and that they should instead just line up with their party's leaders without question. It further assumes -- without any factual evidence -- that if and when voters don't follow this partisan script, it means that some deeper psychological factor like racism (rather than, say, rational, considered analysis of public policy) is the primary motivating factor in their behavior.

Betraying the arrogant elitism at the heart of such an argument, Harris-Perry declares that the "legislative record for [Obama's] first two years outpaces Clinton's first two years" -- a line that suggests that Obama is automatically more deserving of liberal support than Clinton. Yet, in making this part of the basis of her "electoral racism" allegations, she implies that liberal voters are so ignorant that they automatically believe sheer numbers of bills passed trumps what's actually in the bills. She hopes -- or, perhaps, believes -- that nobody remembers that many of those bills (the Patriot Act extension, the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the bank bailouts, the no-public-option health insurance giveaway legislation, to name a few) were initiatives that many liberalsopposed.

Now, for argument's sake, let's assume that somehow none of these aforementioned betrayals on war, civil liberties, trade and healthcare might move liberal voters away from a politician. What about this other factor, which also goes unmentioned in Harris-Perry's argument.

Yes, that's right -- today's unemployment rate is almost double what it was back in 1996. Though that's certainly not exclusively Obama's fault, a shockingly steep rise in unemployment has occurred under his presidency, meaning his economic record, something Harris-Perry doesn't explicitly address, is in no way "comparable" to Clinton's leading up to the 1996 elections. On top of that, we're facing a crushing foreclosure crisis, record increases in poverty and stagnant GDP growth -- all factors that were nonexistent at this point in Clinton's presidency. By ignoring these issues and the data showing that economic factors (fairly or unfairly) typically determine presidential elections, Harris-Perry's essay sounds a lot like a deliberately deceptive pro-Obama propaganda.

Then, of course, there are the intangible factors of different times and lessons learned -- also unmentioned by Harris-Perry.

The truth is that some liberals may be holding President Obama "to a higher standard" than previous Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton -- not because they are racist, but because the times have so momentously changed. With the Wall Street collapse and the economic emergency -- combined with Obama's FDR-like rhetoric and much bigger margin of victory and electoral mandate than Clinton -- many were rightly expecting a more FDR-ish posture from the new president, especially because he himself had explicitly promised that kind of posture on the campaign.

For their part, many liberals have learned the painful lesson of meekly accepting so-called centrism (read: neoliberal deregulation and GOP appeasement) from the Clinton years, and took Obama at his own word when he told America that the nation would be getting a different, higher standard with his presidency (anyone remember Obama chastising Clintonian triangulation?). Additionally, though Harris-Perry would have us forget this, we shouldn't ignore the now unmentionable fact that Obama had historic congressional majorities in his first two years -- majorities that were bigger than those Clinton had.

Tellingly, Harris-Perry also fails to mention perhaps the most inconvenient fact of all: the fact that Obama has been heavily criticized by African-American political leaders and has seen a huge drop in support not just from whites, but from African-Americans. As the Washington Post reports:

New cracks have begun to show in President Obama's support amongst African Americans, who have been his strongest supporters. Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held "strongly favorable" views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent. That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.

When the polls show a similar decline in Obama support among African-Americans, can anyone credibly argue that racism is the primary explanation for dropping white liberal support for Obama? Considering this, and Harris-Perry's refusal to note these facts in her essay, her argument is exposed as more than a mere stretch. It looks like calculatedly fact-free misinformation -- and misinformation with potentially huge negative consequences.

As I noted earlier, there's lots of racism in America, and yes, some of it has come from self-described liberals (see, as just two representative examples, Geraldine Ferraro's hideous comments about Obama and Time magazine's Joe Klein's grotesque column on Rep. John Conyers). And that's obviously a real problem. But it doesn't justify a public figure circumventing hugely important facts and suggesting that all -- or even most -- progressive dissatisfaction with President Obama is somehow proof that white liberals (who helped elect Obama to office) have allowed racism to dictate their political reactions. In fact, using such overly broad rhetoric to ignore legitimate, fact-based progressive dissent -- and doing so in a liberal magazine like the Nation without marshaling a single empirical fact to support the accusation -- does great harm to the cause of racial equality.

For instance, it diverts attention from the real and persistent bigotry in America against people of color, and distracts from the genuinely destructiveracism being directed at President Obama from the far right. It also needlessly undermines the hard-earned credibility of the larger -- and critically important -- anti-racist movement in America by adding credence to the right's dishonest argument that any criticism of Obama -- no matter how substantive -- is unfairly and unduly billed as racism.

But, then, at its core, we must remember that the particular form of denialism represented by Harris-Perry is not really about its stated goal of combating bigotry -- it is about raw, no-holds-barred partisanship in our red-versus-blue politics.

In this case, Harris-Perry, a longtime lockstep Obama defender, is making the argument in order to contribute to a broader campaign aimed at shutting down principled progressive dissent about this White House's record. Whether her jeremiad and others like it are aimed at preemptively preventing a Democratic presidential primary, or simply aimed at strengthening overall liberal support for Obama in the general election, such denialism tries to fabricate an equivalency between ugly race-motivated opposition to President Obama from the white-supremacist far right, and principled -- and perfectly rational -- opposition to him from the left. It aims to discredit substantive progressive questions about the gap between Obama's rhetoric and his actions in advance of the 2012 campaign.

Doing that may or may not help Obama in the short term. But it almost certainly harms the larger civil rights movement by flippantly sacrificing that critical movement on the altar of short-term political expediency. Indeed, the outrage here is not that there is predictable and well-justified liberal dissatisfaction with the current White House. It is that in the heat of a campaign season, some public figures now seem so governed by personal political loyalty that they are willing to exploit the cause of racial equality by turning it into just another transparently partisan political weapon.

Melissa Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She is author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. She is also a contributor to MSNBC. David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.