Menus Subscribe Search
Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally in North Carolina in 2008 (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally in North Carolina in 2008. (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Obama’s Unwanted Legacy: The Renewed Influence of ‘Old-Fashioned Racism’

• January 20, 2013 • 5:00 AM

Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally in North Carolina in 2008. (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

As he looks back on his first term, President Barack Obama can take satisfaction from a series of significant accomplishments. But according to a new analysis by a Brown University political scientist, his rise to power has also produced a less-welcome result: A renewed alignment between political preference and “old-fashioned racism.”

Old-school racist beliefs were “unrelated to white Americans’ partisan preferences throughout the post-civil rights era,” writes Michael Tesler. But his analysis of survey data, recently published in the Journal of Politics, suggests that changed with the 2008 election—and was also a factor in the 2010 mid-terms.

“The election of the country’s first black president had the ironic upshot of opening the door for old-fashioned racism to influence partisan preferences after it was long thought to be a spent force in American politics,” Tesler writes. He adds that this “enhanced polarization of white partisanship” may “leave a lasting mark on American politics that endures after he leaves office.”

Understanding his argument first requires clarifying his vocabulary. Political scientists define “old-fashioned racism” as belief in the biological inferiority of blacks, and support for racial segregation and discrimination. In contrast, the new racism is characterized by “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as invidualism and self-reliance, the work ethic, obedience and discipline,” Tesler notes, quoting a 1981 paper.

To measure old-fashioned racism, Tesler looked at a variety of survey results, led by a key measure: the degree to which whites are comfortable with interracial dating. This data was matched with answers to two questions posed in a 2008 Pew Research Center poll: Who respondents would vote for in a matchup of John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and ditto for a race between McCain and Obama.

Not surprisingly, increased levels of racism were correlated with a decreased share of the vote for Obama, compared to Clinton. More significantly, perhaps, is Tesler’s analysis of the 2010 midterms, which found that “old-fashioned racism had a noticeably larger impact on white Americans’ vote choices … than it had back in 2006.”

Specifically, discomfort with interracial dating decreased support for Democratic Congressional candidates in 2010 to roughly the same degree as it decreased support for Obama in 2008. In contrast, racist beliefs had “relatively little impact on white Americans’ voting behavior in the 2006 midterm elections.”

Given this alignment between racist beliefs and partisanship, Tesler would not be surprised to see “an increase in racist political rhetoric, since such messages should be more relevant and resonant now.”  He also frets that it may outlast the Obama presidency, since “partisanship typically persists rather stably” throughout one’s life.

While we’ll have to wait to see if that prediction pans out, there’s no question that, for the moment, racist leanings make one more likely to conclude that the Democratic party does not represent you or your interests.

“The evidence suggests that Obama simultaneously activates both old-fashioned racism and (21st-century) racial resentment,” Tesler concludes. “The most plausible explanation for that dual activation is that Obama independently taps into both the classic symbolic racism theme that blacks have too much influence in politics, and old-fashioned racists’ concerns about the leadership of a president from a racial group whom they consider to be intellectually and socially inferior.”

It’s safe to say that’s one divide he had no intention of healing.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.