Too Soon for a Black President?

We do not contend that all opposition to Obama -- then or now -- signals the operation of hidden agendas or sinister racist intent. However, we do argue that a great deal of opposition to Obama is likely intertwined with racial hostility, fear, and bias.
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" And though it seems heaven sent/We ain't ready, to see a black president. " - Tupac Shakur, "Changes"

On October 11th the Senate blocked President Obama's entire $447 billion jobs-stimulus bill. Again on October 20th, the Senate stonewalled a $35 billion part of that package in a late-night filibuster. These actions, along with opposition to his health care plan, highlight lingering questions over whether "hope" and "change" can manifest amidst such a vitriolic -- and maybe race biased -- climate.

In the wake of the 2008 election, an array of scholars, laypersons, and talking heads framed the Obama victory as the ultimate triumph over the color line. "Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory," proclaimed the front page of The New York Times. George Will praised the election and Obama for "taking America beyond an utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States." And the day after the election, the Wall Street Journal editorial page declared, "One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country."

While the election of Obama was truly a watershed moment for the nation, it does not spell the end of racism. Elections don't magically change social structures, engrained habits, or deep-seated attitudes. Even if we accept the premise that the 2008 election reflected a drastic shift toward racially egalitarian attitudes and practices, we must remember that many people did not vote for him ... and that motivation could have been because of race.

Let us be clear. We do not contend that all opposition to Obama -- then or now -- signals the operation of hidden agendas or sinister racist intent. However, we do argue that a great deal of opposition to Obama is likely intertwined with racial hostility, fear, and bias. Recent research demonstrates that even people who espouse egalitarian racial attitudes and protest that they are "not racist," may have automatic and unconscious, biases toward People of Color. Hence, an important question to ask, now two and a half years into this natural experiment, is: to what extent is opposition to Obama and the success of his administration undergirded by racial animus?

In recent years, individuals like President Jimmy Carter, Sean Penn, Morgan Freeman, and Harry Belafonte have contended that opposition to Obama seems racially motivated. Indeed, Representative Joe Wilson's State of the Union "You Lie" outburst coupled with John Boehner's refusal to allow Obama's first choice of date to speak to a joint session of Congress, together represent unprecedented opposition and disrespect.

Some will argue that GOP opposition to Obama is color-blind. Many will say that opposition to Obama has to do with his political orientation -- that of an anti-Reagan socialist who would forcibly redistribute resources to the poor rather than let them "trickle down." Yet, while the GOP is staunchly opposed to Obama's policy that the wealthiest 1% of Americans should pay their fair share of taxes, for example, they ironically revere Ronald Reagan who argued the same thing. In 1985, then President Reagan vowed to "close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share." These loopholes, Reagan argued, "sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing [...] while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that's crazy. It's time we stopped." Arguably, this fact reflects GOP bias against Obama because he is a Democrat, but contemporary research undermines that assertion.

A 2010 study by Eric Knowles and colleagues demonstrates that racial animus, especially unconscious racial bias, predicts opposition to Obama's health care policies. Before the 2008 election, study participants' levels of implicit and explicit anti-Black prejudice were measured. Over the following days and months, voting behavior, attitudes toward Obama, and attitudes toward Obama's health care reform plan were assessed. Results show that subjects were much more likely to support the health care plan when it was attributed to Bill Clinton rather than to Barack Obama. That is, subjects evidenced an association between implicit prejudice and opposition to health care reform when the plan was attributed to Obama, but not to Clinton. This data thus supports the notion that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies.

These findings are cast against a backdrop of a Republican congress dominated by a far-Right that is comprised of individuals who no fact can disabuse of belief in the foreignness of Obama, individuals who publicly held up signs of the first black President with a bone through his nose, and hurled the N-word at a black Congressman. Was 2008 too soon to elect a black president? The answer depends on the following: If those on the Right continue to work to thwart a black President's efforts to lift the country out of economic despair and if those on the Left refuse to admit how robust and complex racial bias is in its role in constraining Obama's success, then the answer will be a resounding and sobering "yes."

Dr. Matthew W. Hughey is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. Dr. Gregory S. Parks is an Assistant Professor of Law at Wake Forest University. They are the co-editors of The Obamas and a (Post) Racial America? (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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