Southern Views

A recent story titled “Racial flaps dog ‘Bama despite progress” by Jay Reeves of the Associated Press documented several unfortunate racist incidents on the campus. Like so many stories on race, one has to wonder whether such incidents are isolated, or part of a larger trend of racism that never really went away, despite the results of the 2008 election.  While stories like Reeves’ imply that the problem is more prevalent than ever, others wonder if this rampant racism is simply a myth.

(Photo by Paul M. Walsh)

In the words of cowboy humorist Will Rogers, a myth is “what we know that ain’t so.”  Historian Donald Hickey adds “Some of these myths may be true and provable; others may be true but unprovable because of insufficient evidence.  The vast majority, however, are untrue or highly unlikely.”

During the 2008 election, an extensive poll was conducted to determine the answer to that question: Just how rampant is racism in America?  The Associated Press’ Charles Babington wrote “…a new Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll, conducted with Stanford University, shows just how wide a gap remains between whites and blacks.  It shows that a substantial portion of white Americans still harbor negative feelings toward blacks.”

Ron Fournier and Trevor Tompson, also with the Associated Press, wrote “an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles….Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.”

I had to see for myself.  So I opened up the AP-Yahoo! poll.  And here is what I found.   The number of whites who described blacks as “not at all” friendly was 4% (another 14% of whites found the term “friendly” to apply only “slightly well”).  The percentage of whites who said African-Americans were not “determined to succeed” or “law-abiding,” or “hard-working” or “intelligent at school” or “smart at everyday things” or “good neighbors” or “dependable” ranged from 7% to 9%.  Another 15%-26% of whites said that those terms applied “slightly well.”

Is the percentage of whites in this country who have unfavorable views of African-Americans zero?  Of course not.  Is the percentage of white racists vaguely close to being in the majority?  It’s not even close.

I’m sure some of you skeptics feel that folks were just holding back in this survey.  Well, the Associated Press-Yahoo! News team did their survey online.  And they had this to say.  “Studies have shown people are more willing to reveal potentially unpopular attitudes on a computer than in questioning by a live interviewer.”  In other words, this study was designed to elicit those racist attitudes.  The pollsters even tried to separately sample whites for their personal views.  And the study still failed to cough up many of those cases.

That begs the question of why the poll reporters sought to emphasize terms like “wide gap,” and “substantial portion” and “negative view,” making the racism seem much more rampant than it really is.

We may quibble about numbers, but if I told you that “a substantial portion of Americans make more than $100,000 in income,” you’d probably expect a number higher than eight percent, right?  Yet when asked if African-Americans were hard working, eight percent of whites said “not at all.”  Yet that was deemed “a substantial portion.”

In the survey, Barack Obama had the highest percentage of “very favorable” ratings, as well as the highest combination of “very favorable” and “somewhat favorable” ratings.  He also won the head-to-head matchup with McCain in that poll (at a time when Obama was slightly behind in most national polls).  The word most used to describe him was “intelligent” (61% rated him as such, while only 47% described McCain the same way).  Obama also managed to prevail while the same reporters writing about the poll used that survey as evidence that the Democrat was less likely to win in November.  I guess it pays to read the poll before writing about it.

So why did reporters quickly jump on the poll as “evidence” that white racism is alive and rampant, and that it will cost Obama votes, when there is ample evidence in the survey itself that suggests otherwise?  For that matter, why do we engage in myth-making about any issue, such as exaggerating contemporary white racism, in the first place?

“Myths…help us construct a history that we are comfortable with and that meets certain deep-seated needs,” says historian Don Hickey.  For many reporters, racism is a “comfortable” story.  It is a simple explanation to a complex problem of haves and have nots.  Yet you’d be hard pressed to explain the discrimination between WASPs and subsequent European immigrants with race any better than you could use the same concept to identify tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Africa, or Muslims and Christians in Indonesia.

But the story isn’t so hard to grasp.  “Haves” typically view the status quo in better terms than have nots.  Yet racism isn’t just about simplicity in explanation.  It’s also exciting!

By and large, John McCain made every effort not to play the race card against his opponent.  And Barack Obama was criticized by Jesse Jackson for “acting like he’s white” for not milking the Jena incident for all it was worth.  In fact, the only racist comment came from Ralph Nader, who told the Colorado Rocky Mountain News that Obama was “half African-American.”

Itching for a dramatic, racist-charged campaign, the sensationalists were deprived of their expected lead stories.  But instead of focusing on the issues, the reporters became increasingly desperate to convince us that American politics is all about race.  That is why the writers claimed that racism was rampant, even if the evidence from the poll clearly didn’t suggest as much.

This article is not designed to imply that racism no longer exists.  In fact, there are certainly some in politics who feel the need to try and find the most indirect way of using “coded phrases” to provide hints about another’s background, yet contain enough “plausible deniability” so that the sender of the message can always deny a racial intent.  We see this with birthers, of course, but also in subtle references about another’s identity.  It reminds me of the humorous line on “The Simpsons” cartoon show, where a Fox News advertisement says something like “We’re not racist, but we’re number one with racists!”

Yet isn’t the need to go underground, or even being subtle, some sign of racial progress.  We certainly wouldn’t see a Faubus or Wallace so eager to back away from comments because of the danger of plummeting approval ratings, right?  Even the thought of being considered a “birther” is enough to make a front-runner like Mike Huckabee execute an embarrassing flip flop, or cost Senator George Allen his job over a “macaca” moment.   There will always be those on the airwaves or super-safe districts or states, who feel they don’t have to answer to anyone, but can’t we all watch Governor Haley Barbour back down over a license plate honoring General Nathan Bedford Forrest and at least appreciate the moment?  For me, that may speak to more progress than the 2008 Election.

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John A. Tures

John A. Tures

John A. Tures is an Associate Professor of Political Science at LaGrange College in Georgia.  He writes about international politics, elections, sports, and the War of 1812.