That’s the theory that is being put forward by the Nation’s Melissa Harris-Perry.
It’s an interesting argument for its ignorance. I’m sorry, that’s not very kind, but frankly it’s true. Harris-Perry gives a few paragraphs at the beginning of her piece to explaining this “most insidious” of forms of racism – electoral racism. You see, it shows up, apparently, when voters refuse to vote for someone just because of his or her skin color. And she goes to the trouble of talking about Barack Obama’s last two elections and what is called “roll off”:
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.
Got that? In both of the elections, no “roll off” was detected. So it is usually safe to say that if none happened in the elections, racism was probably not a factor, given her theory.
But … and you knew there had to be a “but”, now Harris-Perry is very concerned that there will be a form of roll off in the 2012 presidential election. And if Barack Obama doesn’t get his due in votes, it is most likely the fact that white liberals have abandoned him that will be the reason.
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.
Really … that’s the reason? A “tendency” of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts? Well there’s news. It’s also news that he, Obama, is “just as competent as his white predecessors”. Yeah, Jimmy Carter – maybe.
This is the the old tried and true race baiter’s tactic of whipping the base into line by throwing out the race card. Pure and simple, she’s trying to use race as the basis of scaring white liberals, who would rather be called child molesters than racists, back into supporting a black president.
Harris-Perry attempts to use Bill Clinton in her comparison/justification of her claim (hey, wasn’t he the first black president?) saying that Clinton was much less impressive in his achievements yet managed to see his support increase in the days before he was re-elected:
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.
Anyone, is Barack Obama’s tenure in office “at the least, comparable to that of President Clinton?” Well he is beginning to catch up in the scandal department. But no one really ever considered Clinton a “failed” president. Flawed, certainly. But the word “failed” is what is beginning to be whispered about Barack Obama, even in liberal circles.
I was one of Bill Clinton’s harshest critics and frankly I see no comparison between the two. Clinton, despite all of his vices and problems was at least a competent leader. Obama has never once shown comparable leadership skills. And Clinton was a vastly better politician than is Barack Obama.
Instead of racism, could it just be something as simple as all Americans, including white Americans, are disappointed in his performance and are much more likely to compare his performance to Carter’s rather than Clinton’s? Does it really have more to do with the economy, horribly high unemployment and the failure of this president to do anything meaningful to change that (see Carter)? Clinton had the good fortune of having an up economy in his second run and he was credited with that. Where Harris-Perry would find racism, most Americans see economic misery and the ineffectiveness of the man in the Oval Office to do anything about it.
Whether you believe that the president can significantly effect the economic tides, the president is the one who gets credit or blame depending on the condition of the economy (and they have no problem claiming credit on the positive side, do they?). Oh, and don’t forget, Obama promised that if he was given his stimulus package he actually would change the economic tides and hold unemployment under 8%. Three years later, we remain in an economic morass, and the man is trying to get another chance to finally do something?
Is it really racism to drop your support for some politician who promises the moon and then delivers nothing? That’s Obama’s problem, not his race. I remember very well when the meme or talking point for Democratic politicians as applied to George W. Bush was “incompetent”. Barack Obama, in the minds of a number of voters, has redefined the word. Is it really racism to drop your support for an incompetent black politician, or is it a rational decision based on performance or lack thereof.
The key to Harris-Perry’s claim is her unsupported conjecture that Obama has been at least as competent as Bill Clinton, and if you disagree with that assessment (and aren’t going to support Obama this time) you’re a racist.
Same old song, different verse, and just as tired. This time, though, it’s being deployed to keep white liberals in line. A nice little twist.
In fact, the most insidious and subtle form of racism is claiming it exists in the face of any number of factors that weigh very heavily against such a presumption. And that’s precisely what Harris-Perry engages in here.