Southern Whites, Non-Southern Whites, Racism, and Obama

How important was racism in questions about Barack Obama's religion and birthplace during the 2012 election?

Was it racial resentment or old-fashioned racial prejudice?

Were southern whites more racist than non-southern whites?

Long-time observers of southern politics understand the confounding roles of race and racism in American democracy.

Expectedly, such concerns are frequent topics of conversation and research at the biennial Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC.

Resentment and Prejudice

At the most recent conference this spring, Jonathan Knuckey (University of Central Florida) presented a particularly blunt characterization of citizens on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Knuckey noted that bigotry, conspiracy theories, and misinformation resulting from prejudice are nothing new in American politics; and he suggested that such history underlay the 2012 campaign for president. Thus, he set out to study how regionalism, racial resentment, and racial prejudice figured into questions about where Barack Obama was born and whether he is a Christian.

Using data from the 2012 American National Elections Study, Knuckey devised measures of resentment and prejudice and calculated their effect on attitudes--among both southern and non-southern Whites--about the president's religion and citizenship. His calculations showed that racial resentment was statistically significant for both groups; however, the data on racial prejudice did not support simple, clear-cut generalization.

Here is Knuckey's summary of the statistical relationships:

Thus the evidence of 'southern exceptionslism' concerning the effect of racial attitudes on views about Obama's religion and citizenship is mixed. On the one hand, racial attitudes had similar effects in terms of their salience among both southern and non-southern whites. However, at high levels of racial resentment and old-fashioned racial prejudice southern whites were more likely to say that Obama was a Muslim who was not born in the United States than non-southern whites.


Knuckey's conclusions were that racism is alive and well, among southerners and non-southerners.

(1) "The findings of this paper support the idea that racism played a role in shaping views about two pieces of misinformation about President Barack Obama: that he is not a Christian--but rather a Muslim--and that he was not born in the United States."

(2) "Findings suggest that both racial resentment and old-fashioned racial prejudice have independent effects above and beyond those of other explanatory variables."

(3) "The effects of racial attitudes on views about Obama's religion and citizenship cannot be explained away as an example of 'southern exceptionalism' when it comes to the salience and role of white racial attitudes. Both racial resentment and old-fashioned racial prejudice were found to shape evaluations of Obama among southern and non-southern whites."

(4) "Overall, the most racially resentful and prejudicial southern whites were more likely to believe that Obama was not a Christian, that he was in fact a Muslim, who was also born in another country."

(5) "Given that white southerners constitute the base of the Republican Party, this presents a challenge for party leaders to expand its electoral coalition, especially beyond white voters."


Knuckey's paper was a stark but necessary read for Citadel Symposium participants. Readers can debate specific aspects of his data and argue about his conclusions.

However, his presentation serves sober notice that, while racial progress has been made in this part of the country, much remains to be done. Equally important, it reminds us that racism continues as both a regional and national problem.

AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every other year since 1978; and it has become a main event for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about 50 academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.