Have three years with our first black president helped us move past the issue of race in presidential elections or, at least, in regard to Barrack Obama? Prior to Obama’s bid for the presidency, many Americans were convinced that race was such a disqualifying factor that they would never live to see an African American president. Happily, they were wrong, but many remain convinced that race will still negatively affect Obama’s reelection bid. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I too think race will play a role in the 2012 election. But I am no longer so sure that race will be significant; race may only play a minimal role this time around.
My intuition comes from reflecting on an article I wrote that examined the public’s response to the cartoon below. The New York Post ran this cartoon by Sean Delonas in the first month of Obama's presidency, just a few days before
he signed the stimulus bill, and a controversy immediately ensued over whether it was racist. The central finding in my study was that a majority thought this cartoon was racist or offensive, even if its creator did not intentionally direct it at President Obama.
At the time, I was surprised by my own finding because I had assumed that the general public would be as wedded as the Supreme Court to the notion that discrimination requires intent. While I have argued elsewhere that actions can be discriminatory without conscious intent, I am not sure a majority firmly agrees. Reflecting back, I now wonder whether the public’s willingness to label something racist was momentarily heightened, and it characterized the cartoon as racist not because it believed in unintentional discrimination, but because it was hyper-protective of its new President. Thus, it was willing to interpret racism where it otherwise would not. If so, the public’s strong reaction to the cartoon is more likely attributable to a confluence of circumstances, one of which was Obama’s race, but the most important of which was a desire to defend Obama at ever corner.
This explanation seems even more plausible given that presidential events with similar racial undertones haven’t regularly arisen as of late or, at least, the public hasn’t noticed them as such. (e.g., public seemed to dismiss Trump’s hunt for Obama birth certificate more than it castigated it). Have we grown less racist? Have we grown less sensitive? I suspect we have grown less sensitive, at least, in regard to Obama. Obama is now simply “The President” and isn’t perceived to be in need of others’ defense (or his popularity has been so low that no one wanted to defend him). I also suspect there have simply been fewer racial undertones because there is less of an upside to attacking a well established President based on race. The potential upside will surely change as the chance of removing Obama from office becomes more immediate, but I doubt there will be the same upside this election cycle as last because Obama is now a president rather than a candidate. Would this mean we have made racial progress or that presidents are special?