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Tuning into the election's racial frequency

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"When it comes to African-American audiences, some have called Sen. Barack Obama's presidential bid a 'dual-track' candidacy, one that seeks to prove he is in tune with the needs of the black community while also not alienating whites."

This was the opening sentence of the Chicago Tribune's cover story July 15th. The unanswered (and not even asked) questions are 1) what does he need to do in order to appeal to both of these groups, and 2) is simultaneously appealing to both groups even possible. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief examination of these two questions.

Reporters and pundits alike often frame this issue racially, as in the example above. Nothing wrong with that. There are legitimate racial issues in this and other elections that deserve and are worthy of media scrutiny and citizen discussion. And certainly, Obama's ability to simultaneously appeal to both White and Black voters (not to mention to other racial and ethnic minority groups) may both determine who wins the election and provide some much-needed racial unity (see my previous post on the racial implications of this election). That said, a purely racial framing of this question is much too simplistic. In the interest of space, I'll focus on just one example: the intersection between race and social class:

Despite the mainstreaming of egalitarian ideology, Blacks continue to lag behind Whites on most important measures associated with life quality in the United States. For example, a significantly lower percentage of Blacks (47.7%) own their own home than Whites (71.6%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002a), and similar discrepancies are evident in health insurance coverage (Bennefield, 2002), job income (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002b), and job satisfaction (Riley, 2000; Tuch & Martin, 1991).


It doesn't all come down to education, though there are certainly racial education discrepancies as well. U.S. Census data show that African Americans earn significantly less than their White counterparts in each education bracket. For example, African Americans with advanced degrees can expect to earn 2.5 million dollars in their lifetime, assuming full-time and year-around work -- compared to a lifetime earning estimate of 3.1 million for White Americans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

Indeed, the cause of the racial SES gap cannot be reduced to a single factor and is, in any case, beyond the scope of this particular article. My point here is to emphasize that despite decades of considerable, if slow, progress, Blacks and Whites in the United States continue to live in different socioeconomic realities. graph2

But here's the kicker: Black and White Americans also continue to have vastly different perceptions regarding the realities of racial inequality. For example, according to national surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), 66% of Blacks but only 34% of Whites thought that the racial inequality in jobs, income, and housing was primarily the result of discrimination (Schuman, Steeh, Bobo, & Krysan, 1997).

Without doubt, the different lived realities of the two sides of the color line contribute heavily to this discrepant perception. However, it also seems significant that Whites tend to locate racism in color-consciousness (and therefore see "color-blindness" as the solution), while Blacks are more likely to (1) see racism as a system of power and privilege and (2) consider the affirmation of racial difference (i.e., racial identity) as a core element of their historical and present experience (Hughes & Tuch, 2000; Omi & Wynant, 1994).

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Who is right? This too is a complex question, though there is considerable evidence that a color-blind approach actually leads to a perpetuation of group inequalities (Brewer & Brown, 1998). But who is right is not the point.

The research data indicate that to be attractive to both Black and White voters, Obama (and any other candidate) must be able to not only appeal to voters across a wide socioeconomic range but also to groups whose explanations for the racial inequities are largely at odds with each other.

Is this possible? Obama's current strategy suggests that it might be. On the one hand, he is acknowledging that race matters in his own and other people's lives. On the other hand, his recent speech to the NAACP convention focused primarily on African American responsibility. From a white conservative, such a message is sometimes perceived as a denial of the existence of racism. But coming from Obama, who frames this message in the first person (e.g., "we also have to demand more from ourselves"), such words are perceived by large sections of the African American community as inspiring rather than blaming, even as they provide a comforting reassurance for many White voters.


Bennefield, R. (2002, August 22). Dynamics of Economic Well-Being: Health Insurance, 1993 to 1995. Who Loses Coverage and for How Long? U.S. Census Bureau report. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/sipp/p70-64.pdf

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Brewer, M. B., & Brown, R. J. (1998). Intergroup relations. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 554-594). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hughes, M., & Tuch, S. A. (2000). How beliefs about poverty influence racial policy attitudes: A study of Whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians in the United States. In D.O. Sears, J. Sidanius, & L. Bobo (Eds.), Racialized politics: The debate about racism in America (pp. 165-190). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)

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Dear Mr. Lyubansky,    &n... by mfaison on Saturday, Jul 19, 2008 at 7:51:05 AM
Dear Ms. Faison,I appreciate your observations, as... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Jul 19, 2008 at 10:48:28 AM
 Has got to be  Barack Obama! It takes "The Auda... by Lew Ranger on Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008 at 3:45:43 PM