Racial Prejudice in the 2008 Campaign


September 19, 2008

Racism has raised its ugly head in the presidential campaign. More exactly, talk about racism has raised its ugly head. Given that it’s a Democratic year — or, at least, should be a Democratic year — the difficult question has presented itself: Why isn’t Sen. Barack Obama way ahead of Sen. John McCain in the polls? Why are they virtually tied? And some Democrats (for instance, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas) have begun answering that question by asking, “Have you noticed that Barack Obama is African American?” In other words: Have you noticed that some white voters, who would vote for Obama if he too were white, are not voting for him because of their vicious racial prejudices?
If Obama loses in this should-be Democratic year, it will in large measure be the result of the fact that the national Democratic Party has allied itself with secularists — that is, with atheists and anti-Christians who want to drive Christianity out of the public square. These Obama supporters want to replace the traditional American moral code — which, until recently, had always been a predominantly Christian code (more specifically, a predominantly Protestant code) — with a highly permissive moral code that endorses sexual freedom, abortion, and homosexuality, including (of course) same-sex marriage. Somewhere down the road they’d like to add to this list euthanasia and God knows what further forms of sexual liberation.
But liberal Democrats — even church-going Catholic Democrats (like Governor Sebelius) — don’t like to admit this, so dependent are they on the support of the anti-Christianity cultural movement. Why offend that movement by suggesting that its anti-Christian bigotry is the cause of Democratic misfortunes? So they look around for some other reason to explain Obama’s relative un-success.
Racism is a perfect answer because, for one, it soothes the anti-Christian element in the party. That element prides itself on its freedom from racism. They may favor sexual license, sexual perversion, and the killing of unborn babies; but their freedom from racism makes them morally superior to you and me and the rest of the great unwashed. Of course, for this claim of moral superiority to carry weight, it must be understood that racism is still a major problem in American life. And so these morally superior secularists tend to exaggerate the degree of racism that survives in the United States.
How much racism is there? Not much. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s really were successful in their efforts. And their greatest success was not that they improved the condition of black Americans, though of course they were successful in that regard; it was that they persuaded white Americans to examine their collective conscience and repent and renounce their more than 300-year-old sin of race prejudice and discrimination. White liberals (not to mention black demagogues) who greatly exaggerate the amount of racism that survives in America are, in effect, pronouncing that King and his allies were failures.
Anti-black race prejudice can still be found, but mostly it is found among whites of the lower social classes, who because of their lowly status have small power to harm African Americans in their pursuit of academic, economic, and social success. Those who do have this power — government and military officials, public school teachers and administrators, college and university presidents and professors, bankers, corporate executives, etc. — are almost universally committed to racial fairness. So far from discriminating against black people, they are more likely to discriminate in favor of them. The only white racists with some real power to harm are police officers here and there.
But anti-black whites from the lower classes — although they have no power to hire and fire or to admit and not admit to a college — have the power to cast a vote. An anti-black blue-collar worker has the same number of votes as does a progressive Harvard professor. Normally this anti-black worker has no power to hinder a black person’s rise to success; but on November 4 this worker will have the power to hinder Obama’s attempted rise to the White House. If Obama is defeated by a very narrow margin on November 4, anti-black race prejudice will very probably have made the difference.
In reply to this, it can be argued that Obama won’t just be hurt by negative race prejudice but that he’ll be helped by positive race prejudice. For one thing, black voters will probably vote for him overwhelmingly. Of course, black voters would vote overwhelmingly for any Democratic presidential candidate, not just Obama. But they will very probably vote even more overwhelmingly for Obama.
For another, many white liberals (the kind, mentioned above, who pride themselves on their freedom from racism and the status of moral superiority this freedom gives them) are super-enthusiastic about Obama precisely because he’s black. They will vote for him (just as they voted for him in the primaries), they have volunteered for him, and they have given money to his campaign.
It can also be argued, by way of mitigating the charge of racism against the white lower classes, that many working-class whites perceive blacks not simply as a racial group but as a competing interest group. These white people feel that they are involved in a zero-sum game with black people, and that what helps African Americans hurts themselves and vice versa. If they see Obama as a representative black person, they’ll vote against him not so much because of his race as because of his headship of a rival socioeconomic group.
In any case, if Obama loses narrowly, there is likely to be a double explosion. Many black people, feeling that white racism has robbed them of a chance to enter the White House, will be angry and resentful; and this anger and resentment will be stimulated by the usual black demagogues whose stock in trade is doing battle against white racism (whether real or imagined). Equally troublesome, white liberals who pride themselves on their freedom from racism will go into overdrive deploring the racism of their fellow whites.
Batten down the hatches.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...