Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama

by on September 27, 2011 · 10 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights, Election

By Melissa Harris-Perry / The Nation Magazine / September 21, 2011 ( October 10, 2011 edition of The Nation.)

Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.

The 2004 Illinois Senate race between Obama and Alan Keyes, two African-Americans, was a unique test of the persistence of old-fashioned electoral racism. For a truly committed electoral racist, neither Obama nor Keyes would have been acceptable—regardless of policy positions, biography or qualification—because both were black.

One way to determine how many people felt this way is to measure the “roll-off.” In presidential election years, a small percentage vote for the president, but then “roll off” by not casting ballots for state and local offices. A substantial increase in roll-off—larger than usual numbers of voters who picked John Kerry or George Bush but declined to choose between Obama and Keyes—would have been a measure of the unwillingness of some to vote for any black candidate. I tested this in 2004 and found no increase, statistical or substantive, in roll-off in Illinois. Faced with two black candidates, white voters were willing to choose one of them.

The 2008 general election was another referendum on old-fashioned electoral racism—this time among Democratic voters. The long primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama had the important effect of registering hundreds of thousands of Democrats. By October 2008, it was clear that Obama could lose the general election only if a substantial portion of registered Democrats in key states failed to turn out or chose to cross party lines. For Democrats to abandon their nominee after eight years of Bush could be interpreted only as an act of electoral racism.

Not only did white Democratic voters prove willing to support a black candidate; they overperformed in their repudiation of naked electoral racism, electing Obama with a higher percentage of white votes than either Kerry or Gore earned. No amount of birther backlash can diminish the importance of these two election results. We have not landed on the shores of postracial utopia, but we have solid empirical evidence of a profound and important shift in America’s electoral politics.

Still, electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare “reform,” cutting off America’s neediest despite the nation’s economic growth.

Today, America’s continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration. In terms of criminal justice, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; by contrast, federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton’s first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers.

These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black.

In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46 to 53 percent, among blacks from 83 to 84 percent, among independents from 38 to 42 percent, and among whites from 39 to 43 percent.

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar barbara September 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

This is her opinion and in my opinion she is full of crap. Many of us have pulled away from him because he has been a toadie to Wall St. He has institutionalized the crimes of the Bush years and made the country much less safe by having done so. This is true especially if a republican wins in 2012. Unitary executive, ck, preemptive war, ck, attacking dissenters, ck, violating civil rights, ck, pandering to Wall St, ck


avatar Dickie September 27, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Indeed full of crap . . . we all have to analyze policy and practice and Obama’s is not very good . . . I never liked his policies and still don’t . . . but I voted for Edwards in the primary, so why listen to me? It is oh so hard to be right all the time. But I won’t even give Herman Cain the time of day. [wha???] Is Harris-Perry’s post really about anything???? By the way, I didn’t vote for Clinton 2nd term . . . and Obama’s no better. Hopelessly wishing for a reasonable alternative of any color . . .


avatar Rick September 27, 2011 at 5:50 pm

“Many of us..” lol still thinking us and them #fuckyeapostracialamerica!


avatar Dorothy Lee September 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm

uhhhh, this white xtrmly lib person is not abandoning the Dems or Obama. Nor are other Dems, you’ll see. Silly season.


avatar Dorothy Lee September 27, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Might note that I love MH-P, but she totally did not get “The Help.” Saw her on R Maddow, and usually love her opining, but she has a big, bad, blind spot on cool literature transformed into the usual movie. She’s too young to get the novel, perhaps?
Too young to get party loyalty, perhaps? Just got my Medicare plan renewal, and thanks to Prez O, my copays are down for Rx generics.
Love the Dem prez.


avatar jacksmith September 27, 2011 at 7:03 pm


( Gov. Peter Shumlin: Real Healthcare reform — )

( Health Care Budget Deficit Calculator — )

( Briefing: Dean Baker on Boosting the Economy by Saving Healthcare )


As you all know. Had congress passed a single-payer or government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one, our economy and jobs would have taken off like a rocket. And still will. Single-payer would be best. But a government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! that can lead to a single-payer system is the least you can accept. It’s not about competing with for-profit healthcare and for-profit health insurance. It’s about replacing it with Universal Healthcare Assurance. Everyone knows this now.

The message from the midterm elections was clear. The American people want real healthcare reform. They want that individual mandate requiring them to buy private health insurance abolished. And they want a government-run robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one. And they want it now.

They want Drug re-importation, and abolishment, or strong restrictions on patents for biologic and prescription drugs. And government controlled and negotiated drug and medical cost. They want back control of their healthcare system from the Medical Industrial Complex. And they want it NOW!


For-profit health insurance is extremely unethical, and morally repugnant. It’s as morally repugnant as slavery was. And few if any decent Americans are going to allow them-self to be compelled to support such an unethical and immoral crime against humanity.

This is a matter of National and Global security. There can be NO MORE EXCUSES.

Further, we want that corrupt, undemocratic filibuster abolished. Whats the point of an election if one corrupt member of congress can block the will of the people, and any legislation the majority wants. And do it in secret. Give me a break people.

Also, unemployment healthcare benefits are critically needed. But they should be provided through the Medicare program at cost, less the 65% government premium subsidy provided now to private for profit health insurance.

Congress should stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on private for profit health insurance subsidies. Subsidies that cost the taxpayer 10x as much or more than Medicare does. Private for profit health insurance plans cost more. But provide dangerous and poorer quality patient care.



This is what the American people are shouting at you. Both parties have just enough power now to do what the American people want. GET! IT! DONE! NOW!

If congress does not abolish the individual mandate. And establish a government-run public option CHOICE! before the end of 2011. EVERY! member of congress up for reelection in 2012 will face strong progressive pro public option, and anti-individual mandate replacement candidates.

Strong progressive pro “PUBLIC OPTION” CHOICE! and anti-individual mandate volunteer candidates should begin now. And start the process of replacing any and all members of congress that obstruct, or fail to add a government-run robust PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE! before the end of 2011.

We need two or three very strong progressive volunteer candidates for every member of congress that will be up for reelection in 2012. You should be fully prepared to politically EVISCERATE EVERY INCUMBENT that fails or obstructs “THE PUBLIC OPTION”. And you should be willing to step aside and support the strongest pro “PUBLIC OPTION” candidate if the need arises.

ASSUME CONGRESS WILL FAIL and SELLOUT again. So start preparing now to CUT THEIR POLITICAL THROATS. You can always step aside if they succeed. But only if they succeed. We didn’t have much time to prepare before these past midterm elections. So the American people had to use a political shotgun approach. But by 2012 you will have a scalpel.

Congress could have passed a robust government-run public option during it’s lame duck session. They knew what the American people wanted. They already had several bills on record. And the house had already passed a public option. Departing members could have left with a truly great accomplishment. And the rest of you could have solidified your job before the 2012 elections.

President Obama, you promised the American people a strong public option available to everyone. And the American people overwhelmingly supported you for it. Maybe it just wasn’t possible before. But it is now.

Knock heads. Threaten people. Or do whatever you have to. We will support you. But get us that robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one before the end of 2011. Or We The People Of The United States will make the past midterm election look like a cake walk in 2012. And it will include you.

We still have a healthcare crisis in America. With hundreds of thousands dieing needlessly every year in America. And a for profit medical industrial complex that threatens the security and health of the entire world. They have already attacked the world with H1N1 killing thousands, and injuring millions. And more attacks are planned for profit, and to feed their greed.

Spread the word people.

Progressives, prepare the American peoples scalpels. It’s time to remove some politically diseased tissues.

God Bless You my fellow human beings. I’m proud to be one of you. You did good.

See you on the battle field.


jacksmith – WorkingClass :-)


avatar Joseph September 28, 2011 at 8:16 am

So, if I don’t vote for Obama I’m a racist. I get it now. Gee, it’s so simple.


avatar The Bearded Obecian September 28, 2011 at 11:08 am

That’s pretty much been the narrative since 2008; If you oppose the President or his policies, you are racist. We’ve been hearing it for the last 3 years. Kind of ironic now that it’s the left that must deal with this nothingburger of a story. Insisting that opposition to the President is racist is a tired trope. It is argued by people who have no argument. Instead of defending a policy etc, it leaves the opposition responding to a poisonous libel instead of the argument at hand. It is the last resort of an odious position.


avatar john September 30, 2011 at 1:23 am

absolutely, positively in agreement.

I couldn’t give a **** if the President was black, white, or just swam across the Rio Grande to pick strawberries. (though “birthers” whose argument was as lame as the race card, might have an issue there…)
He’s not the hope and change he sold us on, even many blacks are saying so.

I would even sheepishly admit that race factored in voting him in for me. Thinking “okay, here’s your shot, let’s get this out of our system now that blacks can’t be president” as I really don’t like racism at all and look forward to a day before I die when I can look at someome and think “this is a person, an american” and not get all hung up on “he’s black and has deep resentment for a society that has kept him down and may think I am part of that.”


avatar bcsy October 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm

I can’t believe I even read this article. So sad that the author takes herself seriously.


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