Saturday, October 11, 2008

Race Matters. Or Does It?

Race is emerging as an issue in the Presidential election but not in ways that are supported by the facts. National Public Radio had a segment Friday morning about union leader Richard Trumka's personal crusade to persuade his white, working class members to vote Obama.
"In a speech before the national convention of the United Steelworkers in Las Vegas in July, an emotional Trumka said, 'We can't tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there' — a lot of them are good union people, he added — who 'just can't get past this idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man.'

"In the speech, Trumka went on to say that while there are many reasons to vote for Obama, there's 'only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that's because he's not white.'

"A recording of that speech has been widely circulated, thanks to YouTube. Since then, Trumka has repeated it at union halls around the country.

"Trumka is white. Asked why he is giving this speech, he told the story of a conversation he had the day of the Pennsylvania primary in his hometown of Nemacolin in the southwest corner of the state.

"'This woman walks up to me. I'd known her for a long time, and I ask her 'Have you decided who you gonna vote for?'

"'There's no way I'd ever vote for Barack Obama,' the woman responded.

"Trumka said he pressed her as to why. First, she said it's because Obama is 'a Muslim.' Trumka responded that Obama is actually a Christian.

"Then, she told him Obama never wears an American flag pin on his lapel. Trumka told her that, too, is false, then asked her why she wasn't wearing one if that is such an important issue.

"Trumka said he continued to push, until 'her eyes dropped down and she said to me, 'Well, he's a black man.' "

"Trumka said he told her to look around at their town, the mining community where they both had lived for so long. 'And I said to her, 'This town is dying — literally dying.' "

"It's a line that he includes, verbatim, whenever he delivers his speech.

"'Our kids are moving away because there's no future here,' Trumka said in the United Steelworkers convention address. 'And here's a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us, and you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?'

"The audience erupted in applause." (Here.)

This story fits nicely into the conventional belief about people of pallor in America, especially pallid working class whites. It's also based on a type of information called anecdotes. Another type of information, known as data, reveals that racial consciousness is not much of a factor to the vast majority of Americans. And when it is a factor, it may be less of a factor among whites than it is among non-whites.

The same week that NPR aired its story about Trumka's personal crusade, the Gallup Poll published a report that showed for the vast majority of voters, white or not, Barack Obama's race did not matter. (Here.) In fact, among all voters, his race is a net plus by 3 percentage points.

Now it's true that breaking those numbers down reveals that among whites, Obama's race is a net minus by 1 percentage point. However, among non-whites, John McCain's pallid complexion is a net minus among voters of color by a whopping 8 percentage points.

Here's some of the data from the Gallup poll.

Among all voters, 6 percent are less likely to vote Obama because of his race while 9percent are more likely. His race makes no difference to 85 percent of all voters.

Among white voters, 7 percent are less likely to vote Obama because of his race while 6 percent are more likely. His race makes no difference to 86 percent of voters of pallor.

Among nonwhite voters, 13 percent are less likely to vote McCain because of his race, while 5 percent are more likely. His race makes no difference to 81 percent of voters of color.

The Gallup poll breaks down voters' racial attitudes in other ways. Gallup's conclusion from the data is this:
"The data analyzed here -- based on voters' self-reports -- show that the impact of Obama's and McCain's races appears to cut both ways. Enough voters, particularly nonwhites, say they are more likely to vote for Obama because of his race to offset the small percentage who say they are less likely to vote for him because of his race. And the same is true in reverse for McCain: the impact of nonwhites' saying his race is a negative is offset by those who say it is a positive."

Check the data yourself. (Here is the link again.) Then decide for yourself what the numbers reveal about racial matters in America.


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