It's Not (Overtly) About Race

Democracy Corps, in its 18-page report on "The Very Separate World Of Conservative Republicans," based on focus groups with conservative Americans and released today, outlines many beliefs and psychological facets central to the conservative Republican mind--and racism isn't one of them.

The study breaks down the contemporary conservative anti-Obama drive into several pillars--Obama's alleged deception and hidden agenda, the fast pace with which he's pushing that agenda, his desire to drive government to the brink of failure and exert governmental control over everything, and his alleged ultimate goal of socialism and an end to liberties. But, when given the opportunity to discuss race, even the older, white, non-college-educated Americans (who, the firm says, "score highest on scales measuring racial prejudice") didn't raise it as an issue. Rather, they brought up the media's consumption with race as a motivator of anti-Obama sentiment, and the notion that they can't criticize Obama on his merits because they'll be labeled racist.

Democracy Corps, the research/polling/strategy firm founded by James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, doesn't say positively that racism is absent from absent from the contemporary conservative movement, but it does seem to imply it. And while they may be right that it's time to move on from the now-repetitive "Are Obama's critics racist?" media narrative, the issue is a bit more complicated than that conclusion, derived from these findings, gives it credit for.

From Democracy Corps' summary:

Instead of focusing on these intense ideological divisions, the press and elites continue to look for a racial element that drives these voters' beliefs - but they need to get over it.  Conducted on the heels of Joe Wilson's incendiary comments at the president's joint session address, we gave these groups of older, white Republican base voters in Georgia full opportunity to bring race into their discussion - but it did not ever become a central element, and indeed, was almost beside the point.

And from the full memo:

In the wake of Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during the president's joint session health care
address and other strident personal and political attacks against President Obama, many in the media and Democratic circles advanced an explanation that this virulent opposition is rooted in racism and reactions to President Obama as an African American president. With this possibility in mind, we allowed for extended open-ended discussion on Obama (including visuals of him speaking) among voters -- older, non-college, white, and conservative -- who were most race conscious and score highest on scales measuring racial prejudice. Race was barely raised, certainly not what was bothering them about President Obama.

In fact, some of these voters talked about feeling some pride at his election.

They were conscious of the charge that opposition to Obama is racially motivated and that bothered conservative Republicans and independents alike. They basically could not let it go and returned to this issue again and again throughout our conversations across myriad topics.

This does not mean, conclusively, that racism is absent from anti-Obama politics. Asserting that's the case means taking up a patently false assumption about racism: that it's always overt. Democracy Corps' report seems to walk that line, even if it doesn't cross it.

Racism is about complex systems of recognition, categorization, and association. If you ask someone what they think about Obama, and they don't say, "I dislike him because he's black," it's not quite safe to check the "not racist" box and move on. Quiet conclusions are often made--and they can be just as racist as the ones spoken aloud.

So the fact that no one brought up race doesn't necessarily force a conclusion on the matter.

This is the state of race consciousness in the pro/anti-Obama debate: moments of overt racism in the 2008 campaign, and continued opposition by anti-Obama protesters with odd taste, like the people who wave posters with Obama creepily enshrined as the Joker, plus the presence of birthers and Obama-is-a-Muslim believers, have led to accusations of racism, which have led conservatives to say "we can't criticize Obama, otherwise it's called racist." Some of them say it gleefully, in a kind of anti-political-correctness impulse; some don't.

It's hard to know where racialized thinking began for each person involved in the conversation. Without overt signs, it's pretty difficult to conclude.

Presented by

Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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