5 Myths about the Obama Presidency and Race

barack obama signing copies of...
barack obama signing copies of...

In just a few years, we have gone from celebrating the arrival of a supposedly post-racial America to naming racism as one of the country's most important problems. The Obama years have stirred up many conflicting ideas about race and racism in America. It will take time and careful analysis to fully understand and unpack all of these issues. We can begin by debunking five popular myths about race and the Obama presidency.

Myth 1. In the 2008 election, American voters selected a black man to be president.

American voters selected a biracial man--not a black man--to be president. Barack Obama identifies racially as black, but most Americans see him as black-white biracial. According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 27 percent of Americans see Obama as black. This distinction is not trivial. Some people could not vote for Barack Obama if they saw him as a black man, but they could vote for a biracial Barack Obama. One white woman said that the reason she reluctantly voted for Barack Obama was because her sister told her, "You don't understand--he is white too. He has a white mom and white grandparents." Obama's white mother and white grandparents were a prominent part of the narrative of the Obama campaign, so it should not be too surprising that these facts deeply inform how Americans think about Obama. Additionally, some Obama campaign volunteers emphasized that Obama is biracial when they canvassed. One volunteer stated,

If this issue [Obama's race] comes up, even if obliquely, I emphasize that Obama is from a multiracial background and that his father was an African intellectual, not an American from the inner city. I explain that Obama has never aligned himself solely with African-American interests -- not on any issue -- but rather has always sought to find a middle ground.

People who perceive Barack Obama as having values and interests that are different from blacks are more likely to see Obama as biracial [PDF].

Race is a complicated social phenomenon that is far more than skin color. Obama's racial identity is black, but, for most Americans, he is perceived as biracial. For many Americans, black-white biracials are distinct from and racially superior to blacks, and, thus, it matters that they see Obama as biracial. While a majority of voters voted for Obama in two elections, we still do not know if a majority of the American electorate could vote for a man they perceive as black for president. In the eyes of the majority of American voters, we do not have a black president, but a president who is partly white.

Myth 2. People who voted for Obama are post-racial.

There was a "racists-for-Obama" vote. A phone canvasser for the 2008 Obama campaign was told by a voter, "Ma'am, we're voting for the n***er." A voter planning to vote for Obama told a reporter, "I've got to vote for him," but the voter also admitted, "I'm not crazy about him . . . I don't know, maybe 'cause he's black." Union organizers were able to convince a number of their members who did not want to vote for a black man to forget Obama's race for a moment and just vote according to their policy positions.

People regularly vote for individuals they do not like all that much. In American elections, simply being perceived as the lesser of two evils is all that one needs to win an election. In research for my book, America Is Not Post-Racial: Xenophobia, Islamophobia, Racism, and the 44th President, I found that in the 2008 election 30 percent of the voters with a high level of anti-black prejudice voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, Obama had a similar level of support from strongly anti-black voters. These voters, like the one "voting for the n***er," are far from being post-racial.

Myth 3. The Tea Party is the source of Obama hatred.

A significant portion of the people who are the most angry at and afraid of Barack Obama do not support the Tea Party. In America Is Not Post-Racial, I analyzed these individuals who I call "Obama Haters." Thirty percent of them do not support the Tea Party. And most Tea Party supporters--although they strongly dislike Obama--do not hate him intensely.

While Tea Party supporters criticize Obama, and score high on measures of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism, Obama Haters hate Obama more and score even higher on measures of racial and ethnic hatred. There is intense Obama hatred and racial and ethnic hatred that extends beyond the Tea Party.

Myth 4. Obama represents the views of the black left.

Obama has received some of his strongest criticism from black leftist intellectuals. If one only consumes conservative media, one might believe that the Obama presidency has been a high point for the black left, but it is doubtful that even Obama's strongest defenders on the black left would say this.

Among black intellectuals who are to the left of the average liberal, Obama has been harshly criticized. Before Obama was elected, Adolph Reed wrote an article titled "Obama No" where he called Obama a "vacuous opportunist" who espouses conservative economic thinking. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that Obama is not willing to confront racism. Glen Ford sees Obama as "more effective in Evil-Doing than Bush in terms of protecting the citadels of corporate power, and advancing the imperial agenda." Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw criticizes Obama's My Brother's Keeper Initiative as a sexist policy that ignores black females. One suspects that Obama would be more comfortable facing an audience of white conservatives than black leftist intellectuals.

Myth 5. Obama is more hated than other presidents.

A similar percent of Americans who hate Obama, hate George W. Bush. It is true that Obama has faced a strong, unified, and, some would say, disrespectful Republican Party opposition. He has had to govern with some of the least productive Congresses on record. He has been called virtually all of the hateful names all other presidents have been called plus some new ones like "illegal," "Muslim," "anti-colonialist," and "nigger." But, in spite of all of this, the share of the public--as opposed to politicians and right-wing media personalities--that hates Barack Obama is about the same as the share that hates Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.

Algernon Austin's America Is Not Post-Racial: Xenophobia, Islamophobia, Racism and the 44th President is the only book to analyze the 25 million Obama Haters in America.