Tag Archives: politics: election 2008

Did Zimmerman’s Acquittal Hurt Race Relations?

A single event can take on great symbolic importance and change people’s perceptions of reality, especially when the media devote nearly constant attention to that event.  The big media story of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman probably does not change the objective economic, social, and political circumstances of Blacks and Whites in the U.S.  But it changed people’s perceptions of race relations.

A recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that between November of 2011 and July 2013, both Whites and Blacks became more pessimistic about race relations.

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Since 1994, Americans had become increasingly sanguine about race relations.  The Obama victory in 2008 gave an added boost to that trend.  In the month of Obama’s first inauguration, nearly two-thirds of Blacks and four-fifths of Whites saw race relations as Good or Very Good (here’s the original data). But now, at least for the moment, the percentages in the most recent poll are very close to what they were nearly 20 years ago.

The change was predictable, given the obsessive media coverage of the case and the dominant reactions to it.  On one side, the story was that White people were shooting innocent Black people and getting away with it.  The opposing story was that even harmless looking Blacks might unleash potentially fatal assaults on Whites who are merely trying to protect their communities.  In both versions, members of one race are out to kill members of the other — not a happy picture of relations between the races.

My guess is that Zimmerman/Martin effect will have a short life, perhaps more so for Whites than Blacks. In a few months, some will ascend from the depths of pessimism. Consider that after the verdict in Florida there were no major riots, no burning of neighborhoods to leave permanent scars — just rallies that were for the most part peaceful outcries of anger and anguish.  I also, however, doubt that we will see the optimism of 2009 for a long while, especially if the employment remains at its current dismal levels.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Why Don’t People Vote? (UPDATE)

Last week I posted about voter turnout patterns. In 2008, about 64% of eligible citizens voted. So what reasons do non-voters give for not taking part in the election? The Census Bureau asked. I created a chart of the data found on p. 14 of the report by Thom File and Sarah Crissey.

UPDATE: Please note this data is for registered non-voters; about 89% of this group votes, significantly higher than that for eligible citizens overall. I apologize that I didn’t make the distinction clearer in my initial post.

Here are the reasons registered non-voters gave:

So the single most common reason (17.5%) for not voting was that the person was too busy or their schedule conflicted with available voting hours (at least those the respondent was aware of). Other common reasons were illness or disability (14.9%), the person just wasn’t interested in the election (13.4%), didn’t like the candidates or issues (12.9%), and other (11.3%).

Many of these barriers to voting could likely be addressed by the same basic changes: expanding voting options. Scheduling conflicts, being too busy or out of town, lack of transportation, and problems caused by illness or disability might all be ameliorated by expanded early voting and/or making it easy to vote by mail.

These issues were not equally problematic for all racial/ethnic groups. For instance, Asian-Americans and Hispanics (of any race) were more likely to report being too busy or that voting conflicted with their schedule than were White non-Hispanics or African Americans:

White non-Hispanics were more likely than other groups to say they didn’t vote because they didn’t like the candidates or issues:

The report also breaks responses down by age and education, so check out p. 14 if you’re interested in the patterns based on those demographics. It also includes data on why people don’t register, either — the most common being lack of interest or involvement in politics.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Voting for a Black President: 2008 and Tomorrow

Over at his blog, Made in America, Claude Fischer discusses data showing that the percentage of (White) Americans who say that they will vote for a qualified Black president has been rising since the 1950s. Today it sits at about 96%.

Fischer rightly observes that it’s difficult to know exactly what to make of this information. The trend likely reflects a combination of a real decrease in prejudice and a rising appreciation for the fact that it’s unpopular to admit that you wouldn’t vote for a Black person, even on a survey.

Still, assuming for the moment that it represents real attitudinal change, Fischer asks, is “the glass 96 percent full or is it 4 percent empty?”  Given our two-party partisan political system, elections are frequently decided by margins this narrow.  Obama won with just 53% of the popular vote in 2008.  Political scientists estimate that there was a 5 point racial penalty (that is, if he had been White, he would likely have won 58% of the vote).

Tomorrow is election day and it’s difficult to know if race will play more or less of a role than it did in the last election.  On the one hand, most people who were worried that Obama would be a racially radical President now know that he is not (some people will never be convinced) and others may have become more used to seeing an African American face in the White House.  On the other hand, racial progress usually incites a backlash.  That face in such a venerated position of power may have aggravated people who are now actively racist instead of complacently so.

Finally, as Fischer observes, we have absolutely no data on the penalty Romney will pay for being Mormon.

Happy election day eve, America. May we all end tomorrow with a strong beverage of consolation or celebration.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Overview of U.S. Voter Turnout

Now that we’re in the last full week of the presidential campaign, let’s look at voting patterns in the U.S. Who votes in national elections? And how many of us do so?

Voter turnout data is often somewhat misleading. The turnout rate is often reported as a % of the total voting-age population — that is, what percentage of people over age 18 voted? But that broad measure of voter turnout will be artificially low because it includes non-citizens living in the U.S., who aren’t eligible to vote. A more accurate measure would be to look at turnout among citizens over age 18; as we see in the data from the 2008 presidential election, the difference between these two measures of voter turnout was more than 5 percentage points:

It’s worth noting that the citizen measure doesn’t reflect those citizens who have been disenfranchised because they live in a state where individuals convicted of felonies lose the right to vote, often permanently.

If we look at voter turnout among citizens in 2008, we see significant differences by race/ethnicity. White non-Hispanics have the highest turnout, with African Americans about 5-7 percentage points behind, though the gap narrowed in 2008. Asian Americans and Hispanics are less likely to vote, with just under half of eligible citizens from these two groups voting in 2008:

Both parties are keenly aware of the steady growth in voter turnout among Hispanics; as the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the U.S., increasing participation in elections promises growing political influence in the future, a source of both opportunities and challenges for the parties as they vie for those votes.

Not surprisingly, age and education affect voting behavior. Within every educational level, the voting rate goes up steadily with age.

For more information on voting patterns, the Census Bureau has an interactive website that lets you select elections between 1996 and 2010 and see a map and graphs broken down by sex, race/ethnicity, age, and so on.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Race/Ethnicity and Voter Turnout

As we enter the home stretch of the presidential campaign, there’s a steady stream of media discussions of potential turnout and differences in early voters and those who vote on Election Day, analysis of the demographics of swing states, and a flood of campaign materials and phone calls aimed at both winning us over and convincing us to actually go vote (those of you not living in swing states may be blessed with less of this).

So who does vote? And how many of us do so?

Demos.org recently released a report on voting rates and access among Native Americans. It contains a breakdown of voting and voter registration by race/ethnicity for the 2008 presidential election. That year, about 64% of all adults eligible to vote in the U.S. did so, but the rates varied widely by group. White non-Hispanics and African Americans had the highest turnout, with every other group having significantly less likely to vote. Half or less of Asians, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics voted:

For every group, the vast majority of those who register do go on to vote. But significant numbers of people who have the right to vote aren’t registered to do so, and even among registered voters (the darkest blue columns), turnout is higher among White non-Hispanics and African Americans than other groups. This could reflect lack of interest in or enthusiasm for the election or the candidates, but likely also reflects structural and organizational differences, from poverty to the lack of concerted efforts by campaigns to make voting easier by providing shuttles to the polls and otherwise getting out the vote in these communities.

Whites, Blacks, and Apes in the Great Chain of Being

I’m reposting this piece from 2008 in solidarity with Lisa Wade (no relation), whose (non-white) child was described by his teacher as  “the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.”  It’s an amateur history of the association of Black people with primates. Please feel free to clarify or correct my broad description of many centuries of thought.

The predominant colonial theory of race was the great chain of being, the idea that human races could be lined up from most superior to most inferior.  That is, God, white people, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom.

Consider this drawing that appeared in Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799). On the bottom of the image (but the top of the chain) are types of Europeans, Romans, and Greeks.  On the top (but the bottom of the chain) are “Asiatics,” “American Savages,” and “Negros.”  White wrote: “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”

Nearly 70 years later, in 1868, Ernst Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte was published.  in the book, this image appeared (his perfect person, by the way, was German, not Greek):


In this image, we see a depiction of the great chain of being with Michelangelo’s sculpture of David Apollo Belvedere at the top (the most perfect human), a black person below, and an ape below him.

Notice that there seems to be some confusion over where the chain ends.  Indeed, there was a lot of discussion as to where to draw the line.  Are apes human?  Are blacks?  Carolus Linneaus, that famous guy who developed the classification system for living things, wasn’t sure.  In his book Systema Naturae (1758), he published this picture, puzzling over whether the things that separating apes from humans were significant.

In this picture (also appearing in White 1799) are depictions of apes in human-like positions (walking, using a cane).  Notice also the way in which the central figure is feminized (long hair, passive demeanor, feminized body) so as to make her seem more human.

Here we have a chimpanzee depicted drinking a cup of tea.  This is Madame Chimpanzee.  She was a travelling attraction showing how human chimps could be.

In any case, while they argued about where to draw the line, intellectuals of the day believed that apes and blacks were very similar.  In this picture, from a book by Robert Knox called The Races of Men (1851), the slant of the brow is used to draw connections between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan” and differences between those two and the “European.”

The practice of depicting the races hierarchically occurred as late as the early 1900s as we showed in a previous post.

NEW! Nov ’09) The image below appeared in the The Evolution of Man (1874 edition) as part of an argument that blacks are evolutionarily close to apes (source):HLFig2
During this same period, African people were kept in zoos alongside animals.  These pictures below are of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who spent some time as an attraction in a zoo in the early 1900s (but whose “captivity” was admittedly controversial at the time).  (There’s a book about him that I haven’t read.  So I can’t endorse it, but I will offer a link.)  Ota Benga saw most of his tribe, including his wife and child, murdered before being brought to the Bronx Zoo.  (It was customary for the people of his tribe to sharpen their teeth.)

The theorization of the great chain of being was not just for “science” or “fun.”  It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people.  If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than, even less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.

This is a “generalizable tactic of oppression,” by the way.  During the period of intense anti-Irish sentiment in the U.S. and Britain, the Irish were routinely compared to apes as well.

So, there you have it.  Connections have been drawn between black people and primates for hundreds of years.  Whatever else you want to think about modern instances of this association – the one Wade and her child are suffering now, but also the Obama sock monkey, the Black Lil’ Monkey doll, and a political cartoon targeting Obama – objections are not just paranoia.

(I’m sorry not to provide a full set of links.  I’ve collected them over the years for my Race and Ethnicity class.  But a lot of the images and information came from here.)

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Race and Politics in Appalachia

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

In recent Democratic primaries in Appalachian states, Obama lost 40% of the vote.  The anti-Obama Democrats voted for candidates like “uncommitted” (Kentucky), an unknown lawyer (Arkansas), and a man who is incarcerated in Texas (West Virginia).

Could it be that there’s racism at work in Appalachia?  Or is the anti-Obama vote based entirely on opposition to his policies?

The 2008 Presidential election — Obama v. McCain — offers some hints.  For those with short memories, the Bush legacy — an unpopular war and an economic catastrophe — may have hurt the GOP.  In that election, the country went Democratic.  The Democrats did better than they had in 2004, the Republicans worse.  But not everywhere.  The Times provides this map:

Still, it’s possible that those voters in Appalachia preferred the policies of candidate Kerry to those of candidate Obama.  As Chris Cilizza says in in a Washington Post blog (here), the idea that race had anything to do with this shift is…

…almost entirely unprovable because it relies on assuming knowledge about voter motivations that — without being a mindreader — no one can know.

Cilizza quotes Cornell Belcher, the head of a polling firm with the Monkish name Brilliant Corners:

One man’s racial differences is another man’s cultural differences.

Right.  The folks in Appalachia preferred John Kerry’s culture.

I’m generally cautious about attributing mental characteristics to people based on a single bit of behavior.  But David Weigel, in Slate, goes back to the 2008 Democratic primaries – Obama versus Hillary Clinton.  A CNN exit poll asked voters if race was an important factor in their vote. In West Virginia and Kentucky, about 20% of the voters in the Democratic primary said yes.  Were those admittedly race-conscious voters more anti-Obama than other Democrats?

As Weigel points out, this was before Obama took office, before voters really knew what policies he would propose.  Besides, there wasn’t all that much difference in his policies and those of Hillary Clinton.

Cilizza is right that we can’t read voters’ minds.  But to argue that there was no racial motivation, you have to discount what the voters said and what they did.

Are Both Political Parties Science Skeptics?

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Do Democrats and Republicans have a similar lack of respect for science?  Alex Berezow seems to think so.  The title of his op-ed in USA Today is “GOP might be anti-science, but so are Democrats.”

I hope that others will point out the false equivalence.  For evidence of  Democrats’ anti-science, Berezow cites mostly fringe groups like PETA, which objects to scientific research on animals, and fringe issues like vaccination.  According to Berezow, many people who oppose vaccination are Democrats.  True perhaps, but these positions are held by only a small minority of Democratic voters.  And neither of these positions has been espoused by any of the party leaders.*

Compare that to Republican anti-science.  Most of the leading GOP presidential hopefuls, now and in the previous election, have voiced their skepticism on evolution and global warming.  Only Huntsman and Romney have hinted that they agree with the near–unanimous opinions of scientists in these fields.

Maybe the candidates take these anti-science positions because the people whose votes they want – the GOP faithful – also reject the scientific consensus.

Here are the results of a recent Gallup poll that asked which position  “Comes closest to your views.”

  • God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10 000 years or so
  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process
  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process

Half of all Republicans think that humans have been around for only 10,000 years.

The Republican base is also much more dubious about global warming than are Democrats.

The graph goes only to 2008, and beliefs about global warming since then Americans’ have become somewhat more skeptical about the issue, but I am certain that Republicans are still well above Democrats on the chart.

As for the anti-vaccine crowd, Berezow sees them as mostly Prius-driving, organic-vegan liberals.    Maybe so.  I have a scientist friend whose son runs an organic food co-op, and she is furious at his decision not to have his kids (her grandchildren) vaccinated.  (FWIW, she drives a Prius.)  But is there more systematic evidence of this liberal/anti-vaccine connection?  Here’s Berezow’s proof.

…a public health official once noted that rates of vaccine non-compliance tend to be higher in places where Whole Foods is popular — and 89% of Whole Foods stores are located in counties that favored Barack Obama in 2008… With the exception of Alaska, the states with the highest rates of vaccine refusal for kindergarteners are Washington, Vermont and Oregon — three of the most progressive states in the country.

Areas with Whole Foods have both more vaccine skeptics and more Obama voters.  The thread of the logic is a bit thin (how big a difference is “tends to be higher”?), and it runs the risk of the ecological fallacy.  But it sounded right to me – my friend’s son lives in Vermont – and 75% (three states out of four) is pretty impressive evidence.

But there are 46 other states plus DC, and I wondered if they too followed the pattern.   So I looked up the CDC data on the  percentages of vaccination refusal for non-medical reasons in each state (here).  I also got data on how Democratic the state was – the margin of victory or loss for Obama in 2008.**

Sure enough, the top three — Washington, Vermont, and Oregon — are all on the Obama side of the line, though it’s worth noting that in Washington, vaccine exemption was as common in the conservative eastern part of the state (near Idaho, which also has a high exemption rate and was strongly for McCain) as it was in the more liberal western counties.   And of the states with 3% or more taking non-medical exemptions from vaccination, eight were for Obama, four for McCain. But overall, the correlation (r = 0.12) is not overwhelming.   And even in the most anti-vaccine, pro-Whole Foods states like Washington and Vermont, nearly 95% of parent s had their kindergartners vaccinated.  That’s hardly convincing evidence that Democrats are anti-science.   Compare that with the 50% of Republicans (and 75% of their presidential hopefuls) who think evolution is a hoax or at best “just a theory.”

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*Berezow notes that seven Democratic senators (and one Republican) wrote a letter to the FDA “threatening to halt approval of a genetically modified salmon.”  But he implies that their position had more to do with money than anti-science.  They were from the salmony Northwest, while the company seeking approval is in Massachusetts.

** The CDC had no data for Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Wyoming.