John A. Tures: An unexpected sign of racial progress

January 21, 2014 

While at the 2014 Southern Political Science Association in New Orleans, I heard many papers delivered that implied that racial progress had not occurred during Barack Obama's Administration. There were arguments that there was more racism than ever before.

We've heard such sentiments before, from liberals and conservatives, even going back to 2008. Why, I recall an Associated Press survey taken in September of that year, in conjunction with Stanford University. t stated that not only did a number of whites have racist attitudes toward blacks, but insisted that there were enough of these people to cost Barack Obama the election, as even Democrats held these views.

I was dismayed by the results too, but then I read the full report (not just the press release). The number who reported racist views was much smaller than the headlines were implying. Obama won the election as the mysterious "Bradley Effect" failed to materialize (if it ever did, but that's another column). And their prediction that even Democrats wouldn't go for the African-American nominee wasn't supported: Democrats voted for Obama in the same numbers (if not higher) than they backed John Kerry in 2004.

But what about white conservatives? How do they feel about African-Americans, even when it's a candidate who espouses conservative views (like Herman Cain or Dr. Ben Carson)?

Another presenter speculated that some white conservatives still practice old-fashioned racism. After all, in 2013, there were three GOP candidates on the statewide Virginia ballot: Ken Cuccinelli, E. W. Jackson, and Mark Obenshain. All three lost, but Jackson lost by the widest margin. He's also an African American, which raised the specter that white conservatives wouldn't pick someone black, even if he or she agreed with them on the issues. It's just a race thing.

Well, Seth McKee (from Texas Tech) and M.V. Hood (from the University of Georgia) looked at that very issue in their research, in a panel presentation that I attended. They got data from the University of Michigan and others in a comprehensive survey of voters from three states where a non-white conservative candidate was on the ballot.

Here's what they found: White conservatives did not vote against non-white conservatives in significant numbers. The results showed no effect. Jackson probably lost because unlike the others, he had never served in office before he sought to be the state's lieutenant governor.

Their findings mirror mine from 2006, when African-American candidates in the Republican Party did as well as, if not better than, their white counterparts.

And it goes both ways. Here in LaGrange, I snapped a photo of an African-American wearing a Romney-Ryan T-shirt, doing yardwork on his front lawn. "We gotta get that joker out of the White House," he said.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's worth noting that we've come a lot further than some in the media feel.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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