Post Racial

The conclusion of Michael Tesler and David Sears’ book Obama’s Race, sums up the authors thoughts about President Obama’s election after their extensive review of voting patterns in the 2008 election and social surveys through the campaign and President Obama’s first year in office. As a candidate, Obama did not need to emphasize race for race to be an important factor. Neither John McCain nor Obama focused their campaign on race, but it was nevertheless an important element in the election. Candidate Obama wanted to transcend race in his campaign, but Tesler and Sears find that he was not able to do so successfully. To close out their book, the authors write,


“Regardless of what the future holds, we can say with a great deal of confidence that the election of our first black president was not a post-racial moment. Rather, racial attitudes were heavily implicated in every aspect of Barack Obama’s quest for the White House. From Americans’ earliest evaluations of Candidate Obama to their primary voting to their general election vote choice, Obama was heavily judged in terms of his racial background. Racial attitudes were strongly associated with both support for and opposition to Obama throughout the election year. With these positive and negative effects largely canceling themselves out in Obama’s aggregate vote tallies, many mistakenly took his victory as a sign that race no longer mattered in American politics. Behind such success in the primaries and general election, however, lay perhaps the most racialized presidential voting patterns in American history.”


From the very beginning of his time in office, President Obama was viewed differently by people who were more likely to sympathize with racial minorities and people who were more likely to harbor resentment toward racial minorities. A Republican and Democrat polarization became worse at the national level as President Obama’s race made people think first about identity and second about traditional conservative or liberal ideology.


I don’t believe that the ideas wrapped up in conservatism or liberalism truly mean anything in the post 2008 election world. Libertarians may favor a very limited government based purely on the written role of government in the Constitution, but the average conservative seems to be more in tune with racial identity within our two party system than they are in tune with ideas of limited government and any specific policy goal. Similarly, the term Liberal seems to stand in for multicultural as opposed to representing ideas of big or progressive government. What both parties now seem to be split on is race, but the arguments and debates between the two parties exist in the shadow of ideology, never acknowledging racial motives and instead arguing about tax structure and healthcare despite the fact that very few truly understand the alternatives, choices, and impacts of the policies adopted by either side. What we do understand, are racial and identity signals that are hidden within our debates and policy arguments.


I do not know how we get both sides to recognize that their politics are based less on ideology and more on identity. I do not know what happens to the political system when we acknowledge that identity is the driving factor over ideology or policy. What I do know is that the Democrat party has adopted a view of multiculturalism which is able to talk about race and the challenges faced by racial minorities, while the Republican party has adopted a view that society has become equal in terms of race and that we are ready for a period of post-racialism if only the Democrats could move on. Sears and Tesler demonstrate that we never achieved a post-racial America, and  the failure of the Republican party, and white people in general, to acknowledge their racial biases has created a hurricane of racial tension in this country. Black people today are not allowed to call out the racialized environment since our politics are so evenly split between the Democrats who accept the danger of racial attitudes in our country today and the Republicans who claim that racial discrimination is no longer a barrier. If we cannot stand on equal ground between our two parties in terms of how we understand the influence of race and identity in our politics, we will constantly be shouting over each other’s heads and never addressing the question that matters most: Who is American and what does it mean to be American and be diverse?

Increasing Racial Polarization

In their book Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which President Obama split people along the lines of racial sentiment and attitude. The way that people saw race shaped the way that people viewed Candidate and President Obama. Research analyzing public opinion polls and voting behavior helps us understand how people truly reacted to a black presidential candidate and ultimately a black president. Tesler and Sears were able to use that analysis to see how public opinion changed from before the 2008 election throughout the campaign to 2010, two years into President Obama’s first term. The results of their study in 2010 pointed toward a rocky future, and their analysis was proven correct over the course of President Obama’s two terms and into the early presidency of Donald Trump.


Tesler and Sears write, “As we mentioned … our results from the campaign on the spillover of racialization are likely to have the most important implications for American politics in the age of Obama. If the racialized evaluations associated with President Obama spill over to people and policies strongly situated in opposition or harmony with him, as they had during the campaign, then partisan politics might become increasingly polarized by race and racial attitudes in the years ahead.”


Their prediction was absolutely correct as Candidate Trump turned identity and race into his signature issue, focusing intently on who is and is not a full American, and garnering support mostly among white voters.


The authors continue, “The natural extension of our discussion of Obama-induced racialization … is that racial attitudes should have developed a greater impact on opinions about health care after the 2008 election because of its strong association with President Obama.” This idea was fully born out in 2016 as President Trump attacked President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which bears the former President’s name in popular discussion as Obama Care.


What is challenging for us today, is the lack of acceptance and understanding that race and racial attitudes shape so much of our understandings and interactions with the world around us. On a recent episode of the podcast Scene on Radio, John Biewen shares an interesting statistic. Many white people today feel that discrimination against white people is a serious problem, and many people who voted for President Trump believe that discrimination against white people is a larger problem than discrimination against black people and minorities. When we fail to understand how our attitudes have been polarized by race and how many people used President Obama’s race to polarize our ideas and opinions, we lead ourselves toward a place where people are disrespected and dismissed based on the color of their skin. We begin approaching politics within a framework where our true agenda (advancement of our racial group) is hidden behind surface level ideology that does not hold up when scrutinized. We argue about tax rates and health insurance coverage on the surface, but our true argument is about which identity group should receive greater support from the collective use of society’s resources and which group should not receive such support.

Creating Our Own Realities

“An August 2009 poll by The Economist/YouGov, for example, revealed that 37 percent of whites and 65 percent of Republicans thought Obama’s policies favored blacks over whites. That is a three-fold increase in from responses to similarly worded questions in October 2008 by both CBS/New York Times and NBC/The Wall Street Journal.”

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which President Obama lead to greater polarization in our country simply by being black and being perceived as helping black people more than white people. The idea I shared yesterday is backed up by more research done my Michael Tesler and David Sears in their book Obama’s Race. The quote above shows how views of many white people and many individuals within the Republican party in particular, shifted over the first year of President Obama’s first term. The authors continue to write,

“These results seem to be more consistent with Moskowitz and Stoh’s (1994) finding that many whites effectively “alter reality” in order to rendered a black candidate’s message consistent with their prior expectations and racial beliefs than with the unbiased information processing in Hinjal’s model. Despite not broaching any race-specific policies during his first year in office, the majority of Republicans thought Obama favored African American’s.”

Many American’s allowed biases to shape their opinion of President Obama and his actions. I believe this was spurred on by conservative media and a republican party that made great use of identity politics during President Obama’s time in office. Policy truly did not matter, and ideology (liberal or conservative) did not actually matter in the opinions that people formed. What mattered is who President Obama represented. As a black man with a multicultural background, having grown up and spent a lot of time outside the United States, President Obama did not embody a tradition of white identity. This allowed latent biases about identity, race, and Americanism to shape people’s perception of who President Obama was, what he stood for, and what direction people felt the nation was headed.

Last year I did a lot of research about medical marijuana and opioids and one of the interesting things that I found, which should not have been as surprising as I found it, is that people do not judge policy based on a cost benefit analysis or in terms of how many lives a policy will improve. Instead, as Gollust, Lantz and Ubel write, “Public policy opinions are shaped by people’s attitudes toward the targets of policies, particularly whether the targets are perceived to be deserving of help.” President Obama was not perceived as being a mainstream American, and his identity as a black man meant that his policies and opinions were understood to be representative of only black people’s interests. As a result, white people, particularly within the Republican party which overtly used identity politics to drum up support, began to interpret his policies as helping only black people and minorities, who were seen as less deserving of help. Identity politics and racial predispositions were brought to the front of people’s perceptions of the Federal Government, and President Obama was not judged by his policies or political actions, but by his lack of whiteness and perceived status as an outsider.

The Growth of Political Polarization

I find it incredibly challenging to talk to people who push back against ideas that I have that advocate for better treatment of minorities and women. I have not given much thought to white men whose social status may be diminished relative to women and minorities, but I have spent some time focused on race in terms of how we have historically treated black people in our country, and I am also acutely aware of how our society seems to favor men in business and political leadership over women. When I do hear someone push back against my views and advocate for mens rights or say that all lives matter, I am not able to speak with them as constructively as I would like. In situations where I do meet individuals with such views, I find that my natural reaction and inclination is to become entrenched, digging my feet in the sand and drawing a line that places me on the correct side of morality. What I effectively do however, is begin to polarize myself away from the other person.


David Sears and Michael Tesler identify the problem that I face in their book Obama’s Race. In their book they describe the ways in which Obama’s race could further polarize our nation, and their prediction from 2010 has largely shown to be an accurate prediction of the direction of our politics.


“Our results from the campaign could have profound implications for American partisan politics in the age of Obama. The most important political repercussion is that political decision making could become increasingly organized by racial attitudes in the years ahead. A number of findings suggest that this might occur. First, the two sides of radicalization are inherently polarizing. If racial liberals are more supportive of President Obama than they would be of an ideologically similar white Democratic president, and racial conservatives are more opposed to him than they would be absent his race, then public opinion should naturally be more divided by racial attitudes than ever.”


President Obama grew in popularity following a 2004 speech in which he claimed there was not a blue America and a red America, but just America, and he set out to unite the counry rather than build a coalition of one group against another. Unfortunately, his race polarized the country further than his politics alone. People like me, who argued that our country has not done enough to help advance people of color ran up against people who felt that our country was doing too much to help minorities get ahead without doing enough to help those who they believed represented true American values. Those who viewed Obama negatively felt that they were not being being rewarded for their efforts were asked to shoulder more of a burden and carry the weight of racial minorities who were given a hand-up that was not offered to white people.


I am worried because I don’t have a great solution at this point. I believe that the statistics regarding arrests of minorities and the statistics regarding median incomes of minorities and modern day segregation within our society are real. I don’t believe that advocating for programs that end up helping mostly minority populations or that make it easier for women to seek justice are programs that hurt white men, even if they diminish the relative social standing of white men. Perhaps what is important to do is make sure that we are honest about the intent of our policies. Rather than present our policies as being designed to help everyone (which I believe is largely true in most cases where policy encourages greater aid to a racial or gender minority) we should be honest and say that we want to specifically help the group that we want to help. At the same time perhaps we could be more honest about the impact of such policies on white people, and perhaps we could offer something that aids them as well.


Coming back to the quote from Tesler and Sears, I think it is important that people like me recognize when our actions further drive polarization. We must be aware of the times when we take a more favorable issue position position or stance toward an individual or group than we normally would take if there had not been some opposition to the position. This means we must be able to look critically at our stances and beliefs, and recognize that there are always going to be flaws and inequities in how we come together as a society to organize and use our resources.


I am still working to figure out how to have the challenging conversations with individuals who directly contradict my views in areas of racial and gender equity. I think the key is recognizing that such views can be polarizing since identity lays at the heart of the issue, and overly zealous support for a particular identity can be just as damaging as extreme opposition.


David Sears and Michael Tesler start an important chapter of their book Obama’s Race with a quote from Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, written in a 2007 memo. The chapter headlined by the quote is titled, “Beyond Black and White” with a subtitle, “Obama as “Other”.” The quote is important because the thoughts and sentiments are still affecting our political system and lives today. Our current president, President Trump, first made a name for himself as a thorn in the side of President Obama by insisting that President Obama was not born in the United States and that he somehow did not belong and should be thought of as “other”. President Trump’s most clear objective was (and still is) to demonstrate that America is for white people who look like him and achieve material success. He vies the rest of the global population, Obama included, as simply “other”.

The quote to lead off the chapter in Sears and Tesler’s book reads, “All of those articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural … it also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited.”

What this quote reveals is a very strong tendency in the United States to think of multiculturalism and multicultural people as somehow not American. For the eight years that President Obama directed the nation, a group of people simply did not believe that he was fundamentally American at his core, and this shaped perceptions and thoughts about who our leaders were, about the direction they pointed the country, and about what people thought was good for society. I remember coming across a statistic that indicated that most black people did not think that President Obama had done enough to help black people, in terms of policy, but that most white people felt that President Obama had done too much to help black people. At a fundamental level I don’t think people were responding to a question about policy, even though  the question specifically asked about policy. I believe that people were actually answering a question about whether President Obama matched their ideal vision of an American and was signaling that he was part of their American culture.

People have a tribal nature baked into them that shapes who is viewed as being like them and who is viewed as being the other. In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson in writing, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.” If we continue to think in ways that push people who are not like us or who have deep multicultural roots away from us, then we will risk driving to a place where we are harming others for our own gain and delegitimizing the humanity of people that are different. Our current president has shown a basic tendency toward this type of behavior, but as our country becomes more diverse we will need to shift course and shift what we think of others and what we think of Americans. Without reconciling those two distinctions, we will never be able to embrace democracy in a functional manner.

Translating Symbolic Racism

What does racism look like when it is not overt and outwardly displayed? In Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears look beyond what people say and use survey data with carefully designed questions to try to look inside the mind of average people. Sears and Tesler are able to judge people’s affect, or their emotional feelings and responses, toward people of color, and look at their behaviors and actions such as their support for president Obama in the 2008 election or their support for public statements made in the wake of his election.

What the authors find is that many American’s, consciously or not, harbor feelings toward black people that cast black people in a second class status below white people. They write, “These earlier examinations have largely confirmed the original theory that the origins of symbolic racism for white Americans lie in a blend of antiblack affect and beliefs that blacks violate traditional conservative values such as individualism, obedience, and social morality.” The surveys show that white people view black people less positively than people similar to themselves. This is often not a conscious reaction, but rather hidden feelings that materialize in complex relationships in the real world.

I don’t think the results of the study show that we as white people are constantly acting against black people or that we don’t want to see black people live on an equal level with us, but it does mean that we tend to lean away from black people toward whiteness  without realizing it. This could mean that we like a resume from a person with a white sounding name more than an equal resume from a person with a black sounding name. It could mean that we are likely to be meaner to a black person who accidentally rear-ends us than a white person who rear-ends us. And it means we might choose to talk to a white person at a social event rather than a black person. None of these actions are directly racist and it is hard in the moment to ever recognize that you are making these decisions at all, but when a black person is constantly left out and receives harsher treatment, a sense develops that they are less valued within society.

I have recently been listening to John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series on the show, Seeing White. Biewen discusses the origin of race and racial discrimination not just in the United States but across the globe. In a powerful episode, he and the scholars he interviews explain that people enslaved others for economic exploitation, and that exploitation required justification for the domination of other people. From such exploitation came the excuses that those who were being enslaved were savage beasts, hardly able to live on their own and much better off being subjugated by another man. In the United States these views were weaponized against black people with the advent of race, a biologically false idea, but a socially powerful and socially real construct. To justify slavery and exploitation, white people needed to be able to see black people as less moral, unable to live up to American values of individualism and self responsibility, and any action against their bondage demonstrated their clear disobedience. According to the research from Tesler and Sears, America never moved past these views of black people, and the views we developed as an excuse for our desire to exploit and subjugate human beings were carried with us to the present day, when our President attempts to undermine every accomplishment and action of our previous black president, and openly embraces terms and ideas that are caught up in racists backstories.

Automatic Polarization

I am a Masters in Public Administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I am constantly thinking about politics in terms of how systems operate and what forces shape the decisions being made. I am interested in the decisions themselves, but I find the forces and factors that shape how we arrive at those decisions interesting and equally important. Being able to take a deeper look beyond the headlines and beyond the reactions to policy helps us see something important about how we as a society have come together as a group to attempt to solve complex and challenging problems.


In their book, Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which racial attitudes and biases impacted the decisions our country made during the 2008 election and in the first few years following President Obama’s election. Their argument throughout their book is that the election split the nation along racial lines, with forces that operated below the surface and beyond many people’s conscious thought, driving behaviors. In the time following the election, Tesler and Sears write, “any issue Obama takes a public stance on might soon become polarized according to racial predispositions.” What the authors found from the data they reviewed is that the issues that President Obama openly endorsed or opposed became split along party lines in public opinion across the country. What we were split over however, was not the policy or the particular approach that the President took, but rather who the President was. During the eight years that President Obama served, one of the key drivers of this split was his race, operating in a way that had not been seen in our politics for quite some time.


When people openly embraced a strategy of non-cooperation and a public image of fighting against President Obama at every step, an atmosphere developed that was toxic and dangerous for our country. Policy and analysis fell behind tribalism, and our country’s problem with political polarization worsened, becoming a problem not just between conservative and liberal,  but a problem between races. Until the 2016 election the racial dynamics were shrouded behind phrases and ideas that appeared race neutral. Tesler and Sears do a great job cutting behind the veil to see the influence of race on public opinion by studying changes in public opinion with demographic date following the election of President Obama.


What worries me today is that we elected President Trump after he openly embraced racist stances and created an atmosphere that fostered racial divisions. He embodied a reaction more than a policy or party. What many have said, I think very correctly, is that President Trump is more of a backlash against a black president than anything else. In this sense, the polarization over race that began under President Obama has been heightened and maintained after his term. We have continued to see a split where anything publicly stated by President Trump is vehemently opposed by the Democrats who have come to stand for racial equality and the Republicans who have come to embrace ideas of whiteness. To move beyond this stage in politics requires a recognition of how our innate senses of tribalism have split us in our thoughts of otherness. We must recognize when we are acting on tribalism and when we are truly thinking more deeply about our policy stances.


Most people do not think deeply about a specific policy, but fall back on a few generalizations that I believe are easily opened to hidden motives that allow for tribal influence. Personal responsibility, work ethic, and deservingness are vague and hard to pin down, which allows for tribalism and implicit bias to shape our opinions. Understanding how those factors can be hijacked and controlled by racial predispositions is key if we want to think more deeply and move beyond our current polarization.