Sunday, May 29, 2011

Obama and the Black Vote: Rebutting a Racist

My good friend Christina asked me for help.

Her acquaintance, a man I'd never met named Leon, had made the following claim about Barack Obama and the black vote:
Unfortunately Obama will get over 90% of black votes as long as he runs for president. If this was being done by white voters, then blacks would have been screaming racism, and rightfully so.
It is interesting that, according to Islam, the child goes according to the father, so that makes Obama Muslim. His father was Muslim from Kenya, his stepfather was Muslim from Indonesia. And I also find interesting that even Christian blacks voted for black Muslim. Right Christina?

Soon another friend, Aubrey, expressed agreement with Leon's opinions while adding a few comments of his own:

I'm just saying before this election less then 45% of the African American population turned out to vote... then the minute they find out there is a BLACK man running for office more then 60% of the population ended up voting.

As it seemed that this belief about Obama and the black vote was widely held, I figured I should rebut it. Unfortunately, I didn't have access to the post in which Leon made his comments, so I was only able to directly confront Aubrey. Here, unedited, is what I wrote to him:

While there was a slight uptick both in black voter turnout and black support for the Democratic Party in 2008 (i.e., between 5% and 7%), the increase was nowhere near significant enough to justify your assertion that "black people only vote based on race" (and before you complain that you never said that, you made a point of agreeing with the person who did). Here are the facts (for the sake of convenience, all of the statistics cited have been rounded):

1a. African-Americans have been a Democratic bloc for decades, thanks to a process that began during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency (when his New Deal programs helped millions of impoverished black people and received their appreciation) and reached its climax in the election of 1964 (when the Republican Party nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, a man whose opposition to civil rights legislation was the official sign that the GOP was jettisoning of black interests in an ultimately-successful effort to woo Dixiecrats and other racists). That is why, in the pair of presidential elections before the 2008 contest, the Democratic candidates received 90% and 88% of the black vote, a figure that Obama only increased to 95% in 2008. This rise, though not insignificant, is rendered less impressive when you take into account that Obama's share of the overall popular vote was 5% higher than that of the Democratic candidate from the previous election, a margin that black voters surpassed by only 2%. For more on that, see:

1b. Black voter turnout rose from 60% in 2004 to 65% in 2008. While this was in contrast to overall voter turnout levels, which remained steady at 64% between 2004 and 2008, it was consistent with a pattern of higher turnout among demographics that tended to be part of the Democratic base, including Asians, Hispanics, and women. For more on that, see:

1c. This is not to say that blacks didn't vote in larger numbers, or support the Democratic candidate at a greater percentage, than had been the case in elections when the Democrat wasn't a black man; both of those things are true. The data, however, suggests that although Obama's race was important to many black voters, it was hardly the sole or even decisive variable.

2. I'm tired of people acting as if Obama's inexperience means his supporters could have only gravitated toward him on the basis of his race. Plenty of presidential candidates have been backed by large and passionate movements despite their short resumes and/or ambiguity on the issues, from Abraham Lincoln and Wendell Willkie to John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

Had I been able to respond to Leon, I would have repeated all of that before adding the following:

3. Apart from the fact that Obama's ability to be a good president wouldn't be impaired if he was a Muslim, the reality is that Islam does not pass down automatically through the father.

4. Even if being a Muslim was passed on paternally, both of Obama's parents had officially disavowed their childhood faiths by the time he was born (and atheism, I am certain, is not inherited).

5. Even if Obama had spent his childhood as a Muslim, either by default due to his father's background or because he had been deliberately raised that way, he was baptized as a member of the United Church of Christ when he was twenty-seven.

Now that I have addressed all of your points - and in a matter that is beyond reasonable dispute, since as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." - I have two questions for you:

1. Why were you so quick to believe that blacks only supported Obama because of his race?

There is no way you came to this conclusion based on objectively conducted research, since all of the relevant historical and statistical information contradicts it. Once that has been established, the only explanation which makes sense is that you have a predisposition to dislike black people and, as such, was naturally inclined to believe something that depicted them in a disparaging fashion.

Is this my way of calling you a racist?

Yes. The term "racist" is a strong one, but when someone reveals a prejudice against another race (prejudice being defined in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as "(1) a preconceived judgment or opinion, (2) an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge"), the term "racist" must be used.

2. Why were you so quick to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim?

That one I may just chalk up to stupidity.

Was I rude in my replies, both hypothetical and actual? Perhaps... but if our politics had more intelligent rudeness and less stupid civility, we would be a lot better off.

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