State of Race

Diversity and demographics

“I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” That was Barack Obama’s rejoinder to criticisms that he hadn’t done enough for African Americans. More than an answer to blacks though, it sounded an assurance to whites. It also raises the question: How is race playing in the 2012 campaign?

Suspicions of race-baiting have been widely reported by the media. Republican ads charge that Obama favors welfare and poor people, reminding voters that he is an African American. Does anyone not know that? The “birthers” continue circulating rumors that the president wasn’t born in the United States—and, by the way, he’s a secret Muslim. Donald Trump intermittently props that up by demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate while Mitt Romney jokes that no one has ever asked to see his.

As long as Obama is seen as “other,” partisans like the attorney general of Kansas will play the birth-certificate game—the most scrutinized birth record in history. Romney’s joke, on the other hand, implies that he is “us”—no need to establish his citizenship.

The Democrats have responded in kind. Vice President Joe Biden predicted to a largely African-American audience that the economic policies of a Romney administration would have them back in chains. Senator Tom Harkins (D-Iowa), reviewing Clint Eastwood’s performance at the Republican convention, called him “an old angry white man spewing incoherent nonsense.”

None of this is edifying, some of it is silly, but is it dangerous?

A recent Politico story, trying to make hay of the subject without fanning the flames, opined that while race-baiting “thrills ideologues on both sides and is catnip for cable audiences…both Romney and Obama have reason to be wary of being too publicly linked to this turn in the campaign.” The story argued that Obama, as an African American, has to stick with the post-racial theme of 2008, while Romney, as a Republican, cannot be seen to be making a racist appeal. Surrogates, the story claims, can and have.

A more complex story was written in the contrasting racial make-up of the delegates at this summer’s political conventions. Who is “us” and who is “other” in 2012?

In Tampa, the Republican Party appeared to be the party of “us,” namely white, looking a little old, a little tired, a bit deflated. In Charlotte, the Democrats—brown, black, white—were multiracial, multiethnic, maybe even multigendered. They looked awake, alive, and pumped up. Charlotte looked like America. And that raises the question whether it is no longer Obama’s hybrid race but Romney’s impression of hyper-whiteness that now constitutes the greater liability.

Polling data indicates that the contrasting demographics of the two conventions probably represent each candidate’s likely voters. Blacks and browns overwhelmingly support Obama; whites are less enthused but that doesn’t mean they’re going for Romney in the numbers he needs to win. The Pew 2012 Voter Preferences polling (as of October 7) shows Obama has 90 percent of the black vote, 69 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 38 percent of the white vote. Romney’s comparable numbers are black, 3 percent; Hispanic, 24 percent and whites 55 percent. Of course, those numbers will change as Election Day nears.

We know many factors will influence the outcome of the election. Swing states matter, as do voter turnout and voter-suppression efforts (see “The Wrong Kind,” by the Editors). October job numbers will be released. The Fed’s recent actions to bolster the economy may not have taken effect. Events abroad could have a modest effect: the state of the euro, upheavals in the Middle East, the Iran-Israel face-off, the Afghanistan drawdown. Any of those may play in the waning weeks of the campaign. Where does race fit in? We won’t know until after the election, if at all.

But consider this possibility. If the United States is not yet truly post-racial, whatever that might mean, it is finally reflecting what we’re becoming: no longer only white. “That’s not who we are,” to paraphrase Obama’s convention speech. We have seen the other, and it is about to be us.

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.