Race and the 2008 election

ballot box with flag

The nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate has been hailed as the beginning of the “post-racial” time in American politics.

But it seems unlikely that America is truly moving in that direction, says Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science.

“I don’t think we’re in a post-racial era,” said Smith, speaking on Oct. 21 as part of the Penn Science Café lecture series. “[But] one can see for the first time how we might get there.”

Smith, a scholar whose research centers on American political thought and modern legal and political theory, with special interests in citizenship, race, ethnicity and gender, thinks it’s unlikely that Obama, if elected, will be able to mend racial divisions. The faltering economy, Smith says, “may work against his ability to be a President that moves us into a post-racial era.”

“To imagine [full economic recovery] is going to happen takes the audacity of hope,” Smith quipped, playing on the title of Obama’s 2006 book.

Smith, who is working on a study with Oxford’s Desmond King on “racial orders” in American politics, told the audience there have been three distinct racial eras in U.S. political history: The antebellum period, where slavery was the dominating issue; the late 1800’s through the 1960’s, where segregation was front and center; and the 1970’s through present day.

In our modern era, Smith explained, the debate pits the support of race-consciousness government measures such as Affirmative Action against the notion that society should be, in effect, color-blind. The Republican Party has aligned itself with the color-blind view, and the Democrats have taken a race-conscious approach—and both claim to be the true heirs to the Civil Rights Movement.

Smith said Obama, for his part, has carefully adopted more universal policies that appeal to both his supporters and detractors, but both candidates seem to have decided “the best solution is not to talk about race too much at all.”

In response to an audience question about a so-called “Bradley effect” on Election Day, where white voters who don’t want to be labeled as racist say to pollsters they’re going to vote for Obama, but then cast their ballot for McCain, Smith didn’t seem to think it would matter.

“The Bradley effect is not likely to be huge in this campaign,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we will have the highest African American [voter] turnout since Reconstruction.”

Originally published Oct. 30, 2008

Originally published on October 30, 2008