The rush of commentaries on Mitt Romney’s 47% speech have emphasized his dismissal of just about everyone who isn’t rich, and his fantasy that if he were Latino he’d “have a better shot” at winning the election.
Strikingly absent from mainstream commentaries is Romney’s attitude toward the African American vote.
In an aside during remarks about Hispanics, Romney said: “If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, well, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”
So we’re in trouble as a nation because the Republicans have a long-standing history of ignoring this country’s legacy of racism and slavery — and thus has alienated African American voters? And because Hispanics might also abandon the GOP?
Yes, the Latino vote involves race, but it’s also tied up with immigration and language issues. Fundamentally, despite advances and a growing appreciation of multiracial diversity, race in this country remains primarily a black/white issue.
Romney is working to mend his fences with Latino voters. On Sept. 19, he appeared at a Miami forum sponsored by the Spanish-language network Univision and proclaimed that his campaign is “about the 100%.” No such overtures have been made to the African American community.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
On the one hand, it’s understandable that Romney’s’ comments on African Americans have been ignored. Who wants to potentially inflame racial tension and openly use race to defeat this country’s first African-American president? No matter what you think of Barack Obama, that’s an accomplishment all Americans should be proud of.
Yet sidestepping the role of race also reflects this country’s inability to discuss, as mature adults, the color-line that has been a dominant feature of American society since its founding.
Just because we are not talking about race doesn’t mean it’s a non-factor in the presidential election. If some analysts are correct, this unacknowledged elephant-in-the-room could be the deciding factor.
The most direct acknowledgement of race and the 2012 election has come from musician/songwriter Randy Newman. In his inimitable style, Newman released a satirical song on Tuesday with the refrain, “I’m dreaming of a white president,” with not too hidden echoes of Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.”
“I think there are a lot of people who find it jarring to have a black man in the White House and they want him out,” Mr. Newman said in explaining his song, which is available for free at his website. “They just can’t believe that there’s not a more qualified white man. You won’t get anyone, and I do mean anyone, to admit it.”
To which I can only say, “Thank you Randy Newman.”
Other analyses have noted the racial underpinnings of the election, although the stories have rarely garnered front-page headlines.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in August found that Romney has 0 percent support among African Americans, compared to an unprecedented 94 percent for Obama. Little wonder that the Republicans have been pushing Voter ID and similar measures.
Romney has never hid that he is concentrating on the white vote. Yes, he has a wooden personality and a rich person’s cluelessness, but he’s not stupid.
“Romney’s camp is focused intently on capturing at least 61 percent of white voters,” an analysis in the non-partisan National Journal noted in late August. “That would provide him a slim national majority—so long as whites constitute at least 74 percent of the vote, as they did last time, and Obama doesn’t improve on his 80 percent showing with minorities.”
“These calculations underscore the depth of racial polarization shadowing this election and the achingly slim margin of error facing each candidate,” the analysis continued.
The unknown question is how many white voters may be swayed by race when they enter the ballot box on Nov. 6.
One fascinating perspective, appropriate to our Internet-era, comes from an analysis of Google by a Harvard University doctoral student in economics.
In an opinion last June in the New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz sought to quantify racial prejudice in different parts of the country based on an analysis of Google searches, such as searches for jokes about African Americans or searches that included the word “nigger(s).
“The results were striking: The higher the racially charged search rate in an area, the worse Mr. Obama did [in 2008]…,” Stephens-Davidowitz writes. “If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012.”
Among one of the more disturbing facts in the opinion: in a Democratic presidential primary this spring in West Virginia (which had the highest rate of racially charged searches), a white prison inmate serving 17plus years for extortion ran against Obama. He won 41 percent of the primary vote.
Jonathan Chait has run several articles in New York magazine arguing that 2012 is “now or never” for the Republican Party. His analysis is based not on the inflated rhetoric of the Romney-Ryan ticket, but on demographics.
“The modern GOP — the party of Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes — is staring down its own demographic extinction,” Chait writes. White births are now a non-majority in this country, and by 2020 nonwhite voters will be a third of the electorate. In 30 years, nonwhites will outnumber whites.
DON’T DISCOUNT RACE
Much has been made of Obama’s election as evidence of a post-racial reality. But political scientist Michael Tesler cautions against discounting the effect of race on voter attitudes.
The headline on a Slate article summarizing Tesler’s analysis makes the point in six words: “It All Comes Down to Race.” People’s racial attitudes even affected their feelings about Obama’s dog.
The September issue of Atlantic Magazine, meanwhile, has a lengthy analysis of Obama as a Black president that dissects the issue with nuance and sophistication.
“That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation of citizenship would elect a black president is a victory,” senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates writes. “But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured, and to ignore the quaking ground beneath Obama’s feat.”
Which brings us back to Romney’s 47% speech. It was remarkable not only because it was so ham-handed, and because it dissed African Americans and Latinos, or because Romney was caught on video so obviously fawning before billionaires. Most devastating, Romney angered the very people he will need to win —elderly and low-income white voters.
How will all of this affect voting on Nov. 6? No one really knows. As the saying goes, it ain’t over till it’s over.
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, www.barbarajminer.blogspot.com, you can also sign up for email notifications.