- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2016

President Obama’s name isn’t on the ballot this year, but his skin color is.

That’s the thrust of a new book by a political scientist, Michael Tesler, whose research of politics in the Obama era asserts that both major political parties have become more racially polarized as a response to the nation’s first black president.

“President Obama presided over a most-racial political era — one where Americans’ political orientations were more divided by and over race than they had been in modern times,” Mr. Tesler writes in the introduction of his book, “Most-Racial: The Growing Racialization of Mass Politics in the Obama Era.”

“It is impossible to understand American politics in the Obama era without understanding the political impact of Obama’s race,” he concludes.

In a year of heightened attention to police shootings of minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement and street protests, a majority of Americans say relations between blacks and whites have worsened under Mr. Obama, according to a CNN/ORC poll released last week.

Overall, 54 percent in the poll said relations between blacks and whites have worsened since Mr. Obama became president, including 57 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks. Those findings were up from June 2015, when 43 percent overall said race relations were worse, shortly after a white gunman killed nine black people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As the presidential campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump enters its final month, emerging research shows that their respective supporters are hardening their attitudes about race. Whether it’s a response to Mr. Obama’s race or a response to his actions is the subject of a partisan debate that promises to outlast his presidency.

Mr. Obama, who has shown more willingness to step into controversies involving race in his second term, tends to talk about historical progress of blacks in America rather than his own impact on race relations.

“We should not be surprised that not all the healing is done,” the president said last month at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. “We shouldn’t despair that it’s not all solved. Hopefully, this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly, listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other. Black and white and Latino and Native American and Asian American — see how our stories are bound together.”

The Democratic Party has long had support from the overwhelming majority of black voters, and Mr. Obama’s presidency has cemented that bond. In 2012, Mr. Obama won 93 percent of the black vote but only 39 percent of the white vote. His share of white voters fell in 2012 from 43 percent in 2008.

As Mr. Obama attempts to turn over the reins of power to Mrs. Clinton, blacks are again overwhelmingly in support of the Democratic candidate over Mr. Trump.

A poll in the battleground state of North Carolina in late September found 98 percent of black voters supporting Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Trump led among white voters in the same poll, 61 percent to 39 percent. His strong support among white male blue-collar voters points up another factor of racialized politics in the Obama era: Voters’ identification as white is becoming more important to a growing portion of the Republican Party.

“There is an emerging white racial identity that was largely nonsubstantive in the past,” said Josh Pasek, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. “Previously, people in the majority group largely didn’t see themselves as being defined at all by their race. That has changed in this election cycle. We have seen a big increase in how salient people say their whiteness is to them, so that being white is an important facet of their identity. That sentiment is very strongly related, both in the primaries and ongoing, with preferences for Donald Trump.”

Mr. Tesler said the responses among Democrats and Republicans to Mr. Obama’s race cuts both ways and that the U.S. has entered a political era “where racially liberal and racially conservative Americans were more divided over a whole host of political positions than they had been in modern times.”

“White liberals become more supportive of Obama’s policies, and white conservatives move in the opposite direction,” he said.

For example, support for and opposition to the Affordable Care Act were sharply divided by racial attitudes. In his book, Mr. Tesler cites several surveys to show that “anti-black attitudes did, in fact, become a significantly stronger predictor of opposition to governmental health care after Obama became the face of the policy.”

Party identification became “significantly more divided by race in the Obama era, with especially large divisions opening up between whites who harbored anti-black attitudes and racially conscious African-Americans who rated their own group most favorably,” Mr. Tesler writes.

He asserts that the sharp increase in Hispanics’ affiliation with the Democratic Party “was most heavily concentrated among Hispanics who felt colder toward whites — a likely upshot of polling data showing that this group increasingly viewed Republicans as a party of and for white Americans.”

“With the Republican Party increasingly viewed as The Party of White People in the Obama Era, attitudes about whites also seemed to be strong predictors of Asian and Native Americans’ 2012 partisan attachments,” he added.

Mr. Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, didn’t respond to a request for comment. But in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education last month, he said he doesn’t put much blame on Mr. Obama’s actions for the increasingly polarized racial attitudes in both parties.

“He tries to insulate himself from the politics of race, but despite that, many of his actions are perceived through a racial prism,” Mr. Tesler said. “Much to the dismay of critics like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, he proposes no real race-specific programs.”

Polls also suggest racial resentment. A Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN poll last month found that 84 percent of white working-class voters say the federal government doesn’t represent the views of people like them.

In that survey, 56 percent of working-class whites said they would consider voting for Mr. Trump, while only 28 percent said they would think about voting for Mrs. Clinton.

Some pollsters dispute the notion that Mr. Trump’s support among white men is partly a response to eight years of a black president. Republican pollster Whit Ayres said voters’ attitudes about Mr. Obama’s race “has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

“I think what has to do with it is the traditional reluctance of voters to give the two-term party a third term in the White House,” Mr. Ayres said. “And the desire for change goes along with the fact that two-thirds of voters think the country’s on the wrong track — that’s what has kept Trump close in this race.”

He said “economic stagnation” is the force mainly driving white, blue-collar workers toward Mr. Trump this year. But Mr. Ayres also noted that the Republican nominee is being hampered in polls by “a huge hole” with white, college-educated women and ethnic minority groups.

“[Mitt] Romney won a landslide among whites in 2012 by 20 points, 59 to 39 [percent],” Mr. Ayres said. “But it wasn’t enough to win the presidency because he got crushed by minority groups. Donald Trump is doing worse than Romney among non-whites and not as well as Romney among whites.”

A Marist poll released Sunday in the battleground state of Pennsylvania highlighted Mr. Trump’s worsening problem with white female voters. Although the Republican leads there among white men, 49 percent to 40 percent, Mrs. Clinton has a 13-point advantage among white women, 52 percent to 39 percent.

In 2012, Mr. Romney carried white women in Pennsylvania by 9 percentage points.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said a sense of “economic threat” among white, male blue-collar voters is one reason for their support of Mr. Trump.

“We’re coming out of a really deep recession where college-educated people tend to think things are getting better, but blue-collar people, whites in particular, think they are not recovering,” she said. “The two strongest attitudinal predictors of supporting Donald Trump, which are highly correlated with being white and blue collar, are authoritarianism and sense of threat.”

She said there was a similar impact on white voters during the Republican Party’s “realignment” in the South since the 1970s.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen this in our country,” Ms. Lake said.

Progressives and conservatives disagree on Mr. Obama’s role in the state of race relations. Democrats have long complained that Republicans refused to work with the president partly because of racist motives. Mrs. Clinton has accused Mr. Trump of racism by helping lead the “birther” movement that questioned Mr. Obama’s citizenship.

Some Republicans have accused Mr. Obama of exacerbating racial tensions, for example, by voicing support for Black Lives Matter protesters and advocating for criminal justice reform.

Even with perceptions of the president’s race affecting voters’ political views, Mr. Obama has reached some of the highest job approval ratings of his second term. A Fox News poll last week put his job approval at 52 percent.

Asked last week if Mr. Obama feels any responsibility to step in and heal the racial divide in the country, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president has spoken “eloquently” about race even before he became a national figure.

“And I would anticipate the president will continue to write and talk and work on these issues, even after he leaves the White House,” he said.

Mr. Pasek said voters’ response to the president’s race involves attitudes that have been evolving virtually since the nation’s founding.

“Race has always been one of the great dividing lines in American politics,” he said. “The presence of a black president does make race more seemingly salient to a lot of people. Some of that is probably a healthy airing of things that have been under the hood for a long time. And some of it is newly induced by a perception that identities are in competition. That’s not a perception that’s unique to blacks or unique to whites.”


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