Jules R. Benjamin: Racism in the 2012 Election

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jules R. Benjamin is professor emeritus of history at Ithaca College. He is the author of a number of books on U.S. foreign relations, including "The United States and Cuba: Hegemony and Dependent Development, 1880-1934" and "The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution: An Empire of Liberty in an Age of National Liberation."

I have noticed the absence in the mainstream news coverage of the presidential campaign any reference to (anti-black) racism on the part of opponents of the Obama administration. Several developments, apparent to me as an everyday consumer of domestic political news, led me to be surprised that there was hardly any mention of this phenomenon.

In addition to the partisan and policy matters that fill any presidential campaign, I noticed a visceral dislike of the president.

While there was a great deal of comment in 2008 about the historic election to the presidency of a black (well, brown) person, there is little or no mention of this fact in 2012 as this first black president runs for reelection.

To be honest, I had a strong dislike for George Bush. I opposed his policies but also cringed when I heard him speak. President Bush was not able, in my opinion, to use the English language with anywhere near the skill expected of a president. To put it bluntly, I felt that he was stupid. That is not the word I used in public; though I did at times use in with my friends. (I should note that some of my best friends are stupid.) I do not make this confession to cleanse my soul but to point out that opposition to Obama, like my feelings toward Bush, seem to go well beyond matters of policy.

I did not, however, believe the Bush was a fascist, an atheist or was born in another country. I was appalled by his "war on terror" and his response to the "great recession" but I did not believe that he intended to hand over our precious liberties to the National Rifle Association.

I was very upset when in 2000 he became president, in my opinion, as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But I did not believe that the republic was in mortal danger.

It seems to me that some portion of the opposition to Obama has taken a Manichean perspective. "If we don’t defeat him, a national government under his control will destroy our freedoms."

I have heard it said that this may be the last presidential election in which the majority of the electorate will be white. This seems simplistic to me, but I wonder if some of the animus toward the president comes from people desperate to save our nation from some sort of “racial pollution.”

It struck me as odd that conservative Republicans made much of the need to “reform” Washington, to protect the poor from exploitation, women from condescension and minorities from discrimination. At first I could not understand why so many nice comments were made about Martin Luther King. Much was made of the fact that a few Republican contenders for the presidential nomination were black.

This surprised me because, as a resident of a moderately conservative region, I heard many ugly descriptions of King. These statements often included ugly comments about African Americans in general.

I could refer to many other reasons to suspect that the historic prejudice against African Americans, while it may be less virulent than in the past, is still powerful among certain parts of the white community.

Amidst all of the handicapping of the coming election, which includes estimations of a great number of factors that might determine the outcome, I have not heard an estimate of the number of white voters who are likely to vote against Obama because he is black. Perhaps, as the pundits say, the unemployment rate, the disappointment among previous supporters of the president, the fear of a looming debt crisis, the murder of the unborn, among other sentiments, might provide the death blow to the president’s hope for reelection. With the rise of the data mining industry, I have heard analyses of how many votes in how many communities in how many "swing" states might be "swung" a bit one way or another by "attack ads" of one kind or another to determine the outcome. It seems to me that racist anti-Obama voters, whose numbers must surely be larger than the number of "swing" voters in, say, some county in Ohio, are worthy of some attention by those who are currently attempting to find the data necessary to determine, for example, whether or not an unmarried white woman in rural Colorado will “trend toward” Romney.

No doubt racism is, as they say, a matter of the heart rather than of political preference. Hence it must be difficult to predict its influence in the voting booth. But sentiments as deeply held as feelings about illegal immigrants, college professors, truck drivers, sinful women and the like are being teased out of the mountains of data. With the ability to note our every digital move, some enterprising pollster, think-tanker, statistician, or scientist would make an effort to determine whether a 600-pound gorilla is really in the room and, if so, mention it.

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