Is race still an issue in American politics?
Barack Obama’s re-election has been celebrated by many as a victory for minorities. For the right, it was a crushing defeat, for both the Republican Party and what Bill O’Reilly calls the “white establishment.” Predictably, Obama’s popularity amongst African Americans has led to accusations of black voters choosing a candidate along racial lines.
In 2008, it was radio-host and controversialist Rush Limbaugh who charged Colin Powell with endorsing Obama because of race - this year the accusation came from John Sununu, one of the heads of Romney’s presidential campaign. But this is hardly a fringe view- a 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study found that 65% of Americans believe black voters support Obama because of race. But is there any truth to this claim? Do black Americans really vote along racial lines?
We all know the statistics. Obama captured a whopping 93% of the black vote. Whites were more divided, but still a majority- 59% - chose the white candidate, Romney, over the black candidate, Obama. But very few are suggesting that white voters are motivated by race. And why would they? A considerable majority of white Americans consistently vote Republican (between 56% and 61% did so in the 1952, 1980 and 1988 elections), and so Romney’s capture of nearly two thirds of the white vote is hardly surprising. In fact, it corresponds with the Republican vote in previous elections, when both candidates were white.
Interestingly, the same is also true of Obama: his 93% is entirely consistent with the Democratic Party’s historic record of attracting black votes, a record unmatched by any other demographic group. In fact, in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson was a more popular candidate amongst black Americans than Obama is today, securing a staggering 94% of the black vote.
More recently, in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Democrat candidate secured 90% and 88% of the black vote respectively. Needless to say, in not one of these elections did the Democrats field an African American candidate, but still the black community voted overwhelmingly for a Democrat as president. That African Americans only become ardent Democrats when a black candidate is fielded is frankly a myth.
Similarly, an increase in turnout amongst black voters has raised questions of voting along racial lines, but again, history is being ignored. The 61% of African Americans who cast their ballot in 2008 was hardly a huge increase from the 56% who did so in 2004. The rise in turnout could easily be explained by the strength of the Obama candidacy, or the appeal to black voters of policies like healthcare reform (as almost a quarter of African Americans are currently uninsured).
Incidentally, the turnout for unemployed Americans increased by 3% in 2008, though no-one would suggest Obama’s race had anything to do with this. But is it really a coincidence that African American turnout increased the same year that unemployed turnout did? The black community has the highest rate of unemployment and poverty in the country, so is it any wonder that when the unemployed turnout increased, so did the black turnout?
Many, however, dismiss the high turnout of black voters as racially motivated. But in reality, Obama’s 61% was entirely consistent with the steady increase in turnout amongst African Americans since the 90s. According to the US Census Bureau, turnout rose from just under 51% in 1996, to 54% in 2000 and then 56% by 2004. Turnout amongst white Americans fell in 2008, but nobody in their right mind would suggest this was due to the presence of a black candidate.
After all, turnouts fluctuate all the time- in 1996, the white turnout fell by 8%, and in 2004 it rose by around 4%. Of course, when whites turn out in greater or smaller numbers, they do so for political reasons, not prejudice. But when African Americans do it, we’re told by they’re just voting for one of their own.
Perhaps this lie stems from the bigoted belief that African Americans aren’t capable of making informed, educated decisions about politics, and instead just vote by skin colour. Or perhaps it’s out of resentment of the fact that a once disenfranchised people are now a formidable political force helping to shape American politics.
Either way, the claim that African Americans vote along racial lines is baseless. The black community is, and has been for over fifty years, the most pro-Democrat demographic group in America.
And this is perhaps the real concern for the American right. Obama or no Obama, African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and what’s more, are taking an increasingly active role in politics. This terrifies Republicans, because they know better than anybody else that the voting power of an increasingly politicised, pro-Democrat black community could spell electoral doom for the Republican Party.