U.S. Politics

A pollster on the racial panic Obama’s presidency triggered — and what Democrats must do now

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VOX

His research details the crisis of racial antagonism that helped Trump win. 

A CNN special that aired December 8 included rare, candid moments in which Barack Obama and his former adviser David Axelrod each acknowledged that racism contributed to negative attitudes toward the first black president.

“I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states,” Obama told Fareed Zakaria in an interview for “The Legacy of Barack Obama.” “Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other? Are those who champion the ‘birther’ movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely.”

This public admission was a first from the president, and Axelrod was even more direct, saying, “It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race.”

“Wow, I’m gonna pick myself up off the floor now,” Cornell Belcher, who served on the polling team for both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, said when he heard this. Why? He said the statements represented a long-awaited “massive breakthrough.”

What Obama and Axelrod said relates directly to an idea that Belcher lays out in detail in his new book, A Black Man in the White House. In it, he makes the case that Obama’s election triggered what he’s dubbed “America’s racial aversion crisis”: a panicked emotional response on the part of white Americans to an African-American president, which transformed into a powerful force in politics.

Belcher uses numbers to support that claim. The book was inspired by a survey of voters between the 2008 general election and Obama’s reelection in 2012, tracking levels of “racial antagonism” — a term that basically means racism — along with political opinions.

His conclusion, as he wrote in his book: “The changing cultural and racial demographics of the country had, indeed, finally allowed the nation to overcome a monumental electoral political barrier, but they did not ‘exorcize the racial ghost.’” That “racial ghost,” he writes, worked to “delegitimize the black man in the White House and stop him from effectively governing.”

Belcher completed the book before the 2016 presidential election, but even then, he wrote that Donald Trump’s rise was another predictable result of white Americans’ preoccupation with racial group identity taking on a new, Obama-inspired, outsize role in voting choices — one that the president-elect was been happy to encourage.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Tell the story of racial aversion and party during the Obama presidency.

Cornell Belcher

We started from a baseline going into the ’08 election and coming out of the campaign. I kept doing polling around racial aversion in battleground states throughout Obama’s presidency. I initially started thinking, as the narrative early on said, that we had hit a racial milestone, and there was a lot of talk about “post-racial America.” But we certainly didn’t see that in voting patterns going into the election. I thought we would see a softening of racial aversion during the Obama presidency. But I was wrong.

The narrative about how America has progressed a great deal and we’ve broken racial barriers turned out not to be true at all.

During the course of his presidency, not only did racial aversion not lessen but it increased greatly. In particular, it found a fertile and comfortable place to land on the Republican side, and it spiked tremendously. And going into the midterm election and particularly during the primary season, it created almost a perfect storm for a racial antagonist to reboot the “Southern strategy” — and for Donald Trump to really ride and expand that niche and take the Republican nomination.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You use the terms “racial aversion” and “racial antagonism” in the book. Do they mean the same thing, and how were they measured in the polling that you tracked?

Cornell Belcher

It’s tomato/tomahto, really. I used [both] because we try to pull back from the term “racism” and talk about attitudes that are negative toward black people, and I don’t want to charge that with the term “racism.” So we’re really sort of looking for a different way to talk about the rise of negative racial attitudes in a more clinically clean way.

As far as how they were measured, I didn’t really recreate the wheel here. What I did was build on what has been built over 30 years of academic measurements around racial attitudes. What I did was update that to focus on political attitudes in particular, and then control for ideology, because ideology does correlate with racial attitudes, and look at it from the perspective of voters.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

In the book, you use another term, “racial anxiety,” which you say is “the inevitability of no longer being in the majority that has some among the former majority so stressed out.” How does that tie into racial antagonism and to political attitudes?

Cornell Belcher

One of the things that I actually talk about in the book is how this really shouldn’t be a surprise when you have the dramatic [demographic] changes that are happening in this country, and for a segment of the electorate, Obama completely encapsulates those changes. He is not only the first person of color to hold the highest office in the land — he also did it while garnering only 38 percent of the white vote.

So you have this vast majority not choosing a Barack Obama. In the history of country, political power has rested almost completely in the white majority, and we’re at point where that’s almost completely not true.

What my research has shown and other research has shown is that people become more conservative or nationalistic with the increases in diversity — I think that’s exactly what my research has picked up on in the electorate, going back to the beginning of Obama’s presidency.

In battleground states, particularly more diverse states, the percentage of white people voting Democrat decreases significantly as that population gets more diverse. So diversity is having an opposite impact that is harmful to Democrats.

That’s why I argue to Democrats that you are going to lose more and more white votes, and unless there is a major party realignment, this is going to continue to be a phenomenon. As the Republican Party is seen more and more as the racial identification party for white people, you’re not gonna see us all of a sudden winning blue-collar white voters.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Given what your research indicates, is there a world in which diversity can continue to increase and people of color can continue to make demands for inclusion and equality — in politics and elsewhere — without triggering racial aversion or animosity that in turn shapes political outcomes to favor Republicans? Is there a scenario where that could happen? Or is it that you simply wait for demographics to change and for people of color to make up a higher percentage of voters for this phenomenon to stop playing such a big role in politics?

Cornell Belcher

The point I try to make is that America is a unique democracy in that no other democracy in the world has our level of diversity and our history of racism, so we are challenged in a way that other democracies simply are not. So you have in this country, in a way you don’t have in other countries — at least in the industrialized West — a real transfer of power from one group to another.

The truth of the matter is if in fact we are a democracy, minorities here in the next 20 years are going to be the dominant political voice in our country. So there is a transfer of power that’s going to happen, and the question is, is it going to be peaceful or is it going to be one that destroys us? And look at what’s happening in our country: the [reported hate attacks] in the news every day, and how, quite frankly, we’re beginning to defy our democratic values when in North Carolina you have — this is not my opinion, the court said it — the state legislature put in laws to in keep black people from voting. Specific laws! That’s not democratic. We’re even violating our own values.

And our Congress, which has historically been a magnificent body, which has found a way to push forward and act through natural disasters, war, corruption, has been able to move and be functioning — up until the point where they elected a black man president. All of a sudden, that body is completely dysfunctional.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

So is there a way any of this — the strong influence of racial aversion and racial antagonism in politics — can be brought under control or stopped, or do we just have to wait for demographic changes that will make people who are motivated by racial antagonism less influential?

Cornell Belcher

I think the point I would argue it has to happen before demographic change — you already have people taking to the streets yelling they want to take our country back. What does that look like 10 years from now? What happens when that angry 45, 46 percent think they’re losing power, because they are losing power? We have to solve for this.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

But nobody has figured out how to solve for that, right?

Cornell Belcher

But we have to stop pretending that it doesn’t exist. That’s a start.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I can see how pretending it doesn’t exist would be an important first step. It’s always strange to me to hear people say that Obama “triggered political polarization,” without explaining the race part. As if it’s a total mystery why that happened.

Cornell Belcher

One of the great tragedies is that the election of the first black president, as opposed to being a racial breakthrough, has in fact given rise to the opposite. It really has triggered an antagonism, or uncertainty, or fear that was dormant, at least up until now.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

A question a lot of people ask around the question of the role race and racism played in Trump’s election is, “How can you say Americans are concerned with race when they elected Obama?” I know the long answer is in the data presented in your book, but what’s the simple response to that?

Cornell Belcher

They didn’t. That’s the thing here. The majority of whites did not elect Obama, and that’s the wolf at the door. The vast majority of whites did not support President Obama and President Obama won back-to-back majorities, and that caused the realization of their power waning. Mitt Romney ran up a higher score among white voters than Ronald Reagan, when Reagan had a landslide in 1984.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You recently tweeted that “economic power is often perceived through group lenses.” What was that a response to, and how does it tie into the message of the book?

Cornell Belcher

That was a tweet really to the progressive establishment — which means too often white Northeastern liberals — the idea that if we just had a better economic message, these people would all of a sudden go, “Oh, my god, what was I thinking, I should be voting Democrat!” That if we just find the right words to connect with downscale whites, they’ll say, “Oh, you know what, I am voting against my economic interests.”

It’s a disconnect that’s frustrating to me. They’re not voting against their economic interests; they are voting for their higher interests — there’s an idea that your group positioning doesn’t matter economically. The idea that you can disconnect white people from their group position and make pocketbook arguments to them void of the history of their group is folly.

That is not to say don’t target or don’t go after them. That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. What I am saying is just that the answer isn’t simply a pocketbook argument — we do have to inoculate against the increased tribalism and racialism in order to have that conversation. As long as there is a group sense of decline, we do have to calculate for that in our conversation and try to inoculate that as opposed to simply coming up with another argument about why raising the minimum wage is beneficial to you.

By the way, look at the last midterm [election] in Arkansas, which is full of the kind of blue-collar voters you’re talking about. [They] voted against [Democratic Sen.] Mark Pryor [who supported a minimum wage increase]. There is a disconnect here that progressives need to understand if we’re going to make a more effective economic argument for blue-collar whites, and stop telling them that they’re voting against their economic interest. That is a complete lack of understanding by progressives of the connections between economics and identity.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

But they are actually voting against their economic interests, right? Are you saying that it doesn’t feel that way to them, or that it’s simply not important to them, because voting with their group identity in mind feels more urgent?

Cornell Belcher

I would even push back on that. Who are we to say that they’re voting against their economic interests? If in fact you think you’re losing your country, that’s your higher interest, and how in the hell am I gonna prosper if [I believe] other people are taking my country?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

In a recent interview with CNN, Obama seemed to admit for the first time that race shaped people’s attitudes toward him, saying, “I think there’s a reason attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states. … Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign — the other? Are those who champion the birther movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely.” And David Axelrod said, “It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race.”

Given your research, it strikes me that it kind of understates what happened. It’s not just that people were harder on Obama because he was black, but rather that the existence of a black president had a powerful effect on their feelings about race overall and shaped future voting decisions. What do you think about the comments, and would you add anything based on your research?

Cornell Belcher

Wow, I’m gonna pick myself up off the floor now. I’m really gonna need to pick myself up off the floor. Because Axelrod is actually admitting something that he’s known for quite some time — and during the Obama election and during the Obama presidency, we didn’t really talk about race. There’s a reason I didn’t write this book two years ago. We never really talked about race.

I actually think this was a breakthrough, and I don’t want to criticize that at all. That if you have the president and his former closest political adviser now admitting that what this president has witnessed is different from what others have witnessed and been a part of, and that it’s racial — I think that’s a remarkable breakthrough, and I want to praise that.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

There’s been a lot of predictable pushback against Obama and Axelrod’s comments — the kind you can expect whenever you suggest that racism exists or has an effect. On that note, how has the message of your book been received so far, as it’s come out in the middle of this debate about “What just happened?” and a climate where there’s a lot of sensitivity about suggesting that some Americans’ political choices are shaped by racism.

Cornell Belcher

It has landed in some progressive circles as the thing we don’t want to talk about — the thing that makes us uncomfortable. I have to take that responsibility. Cornell’s job is not to make you comfortable. We’ve been too comfortable for too damn long. And I will take on the responsibility of making people uncomfortable with the truth.

These are the conversations we’re going to have to have, because it only makes things worse if we don’t — we can’t kick the racial, tribalist can down the road anymore, because America is at a tipping point. What always happens is I’m now called a racist because I talk about race. You know how it is: We are now the racists, and we are causing the problem. Cornell is talking about tribalism, and somehow my talking about tribalism makes us more tribal. That’s the frustrating part.

I’m not trying to put a value judgment on it. I try not to point a finger and attack the people on the other side as bad people, because we need people on both sides to win the future. So I think it’s counterproductive for us to attack that woman in Ohio who, when asked why she wasn’t voting for Hillary said, “Because I want my country back.” I think, for America, we haveto act to try to overcome that anxiety and then we can have a broader conversation. But at the same time, it has to go both ways, so when that 24-year-old kid in Charlotte, North Carolina, screams, “Black Lives Matter,” in front of the police department, those white people in the suburbs have to understand where he’s coming from too.

The point I make at the end of the book, which I think is important, is this idea that America has never had to really repent for the horrors and terrors of our racial past, and from a spiritual standpoint there can be no forgiveness or no atonement in moving on without repentance. But unlike Germany, where they’ve been repentant about their Nazi past and it’s illegal to even have a Nazi flag, here in this country, not only are they not repentant, they celebrate the Confederate flag. … That’s part of what we have to move past if we’re in fact going to be one country united as one people all on the same team.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

What we’re hearing a lot of lately is the argument that whether or not you think you’re being mean or pointing a finger, anything that makes white Americans think about race at all might harden their views about race or make them more “racially conservative.” And your book echoes this in a way, arguing that the very existence of a black president triggered a racial backlash. Does that make you worry that confronting people with your book’s message — “We need to think about the effects of racism and tribalism” — could actually contribute to people being more racist and more tribalist?

Cornell Belcher

That’s the breakthrough we need — I also think there’s a spiritual value answer to it that transcends a lot of the bifurcation, and we have to find that. I don’t know exactly what that is, but I think we have to start asking the questions.

Where are there examples where we were able to tamp down tribalism and/or inoculate group identity so that it didn’t cause conflicts? We have to look at examples there. I was talking to someone yesterday who was in the Army in the late ’60s and early ’70s and he was stationed somewhere in the South, but the general who was [in charge] over an entire region of the South literally lost his job because he couldn’t get ahold of racial conflicts that were happening in the Army with integration. So the Army set up these training schools where the officers literally trained about diversity and racial reconciliation and had these conversations. The Army really put in a strategy and put in a plan on how to lessen racial strife. Now, today the Army is not perfect, but it is a better example than what we have outside of it. We’ve gotta look at some examples at where people have made a real effort at solving this and take some of the best practices of that.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Convincing people to feel and react differently about race and their place in the country and to cease to be motivated by racism seems like a really, really hard job — and probably way above the pay grade and outside the skill set of a lot of elected officials. When you say “we” have to figure this out, do you mean people in Democratic politics or a more general “we”?

Cornell Belcher

We as Americans, period.

One thought on “A pollster on the racial panic Obama’s presidency triggered — and what Democrats must do now

  1. But the Democratic Party figured racial problems (Hatred?) was a thing of the past. They should’ve checked with a few actual southerners. Many of us knew. None of us could fix it.

    Like

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