Racism Without Racists

An execellent piece by Nicholas Kristoff in today’s Times:

One of the fallacies this election season is that if Barack Obama is paying an electoral price for his skin tone, it must be because of racists.


Most of the lost votes aren’t those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.

If you have Sirius radio and ever listen to Lynn Samuels, Samuels must be the first person who comes into your mind when you read this.

Samuels’ show on Sirius Left is barely adequate when there’s not an election going on. She loves to speak endlessly about her personal struggles, like which movie she is going to see next weekend, or which TV show she missed. She becomes very angry when people have the gall to speak Spanish in her presence.

She was a big-time supporter of Hillary Clinton. She loves Hillary. She hates Obama because he’s sexist, unexperienced and he’s no Hillary.

Fine, whatever, but she never said that John Edwards, who has spent less time in political office than Obama, was inexperienced.

More from Kristoff:

For decades, experiments have shown that even many whites who earnestly believe in equal rights will recommend hiring a white job candidate more often than a person with identical credentials who is black. In the experiments, the applicant’s folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience.

Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.

I don’t think people like Samuels and Harriet Christian and the folks over at No Quarter think of themselves as racist. Rather, they think they are nice tolerant people who just happen to hate Obama because he’s “not qualified.”

But if there were a white Democratic candidate with exact same experience level as Obama, I can’t imagine they would complain all that much.


“In the U.S., there’s a small percentage of people who in nationwide surveys say they won’t vote for a qualified black presidential candidate,” Professor Dovidio said. “But a bigger factor is the aversive racists, those who don’t think that they’re racist.”

Faced with a complex decision, he said, aversive racists feel doubts about a black person that they don’t feel about an identical white. “These doubts tend to be attributed not to the person’s race — because that would be racism — but deflected to other areas that can be talked about, such as lack of experience,” he added.

Of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to be against a particular black candidate, Mr. Obama included. Opposition to Mr. Obama is no more evidence of racism than opposition to Mr. McCain is evidence of discrimination against the elderly or against war veterans. And at times, Mr. Obama’s race helps him: it underscores his message of change, it appeals to some whites as a demonstration of their open-mindedness, and it wins him overwhelming black votes and turnout.

Overt racism still exists, but as Kristof suggests, most overt racists would not likely vote for any Democrat for president. But these covert racists trouble me. I imagine I know many of them.

It will be interesting to see how a Lynn Samuels or a Harriet Christian might react once Obama is elected (which seems increasingly likely). Will they continue to hate him for no clear and rational reason, or will they be excited that the candidate who is most closely aligned with them in term of political views won?

My guess is that for most, the former will be true.

But as Kristof mentions, they’e non-racist racism may not matter:

One lesson from this research is that racial biases are deeply embedded within us, more so than many whites believe. But another lesson, a historical one, is that we can overcome unconscious bias. That’s what happened with the decline in prejudice against Catholics after the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

It just might happen again, this time with race.

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