By Melissa Harris-Perry
Electoral racism in its most egregious form is the unwillingness of whites to vote for blacks regardless of qualifications or ideology. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest such racism is no longer operative. His reelection bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has replaced it.
The 2004 Illinois Senate race between Obama and Alan Keyes, two African Americans, was a unique test of old-fashioned electoral racism. For a truly committed racist, neither would have been acceptable.
In presidential election years, a small percentage of voters cast ballots for president but not for state and local offices. A substantial increase in Illinois that year - a larger-than-usual number who picked John Kerry or George W. Bush but declined to choose between Obama and Keyes - would have shown an unwillingness of some to vote for any black candidate. I tested this and found no such increase: White voters were willing to choose from two black candidates.
In 2008, the long primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama added hundreds of thousands of Democrats to the rolls. By October, it was clear that Obama could lose the general election only if many of these Democrats failed to turn out or crossed party lines - which, after eight years of Bush, could be interpreted only as electoral racism.
But Obama was elected with a higher percentage of white votes than either Kerry or Al Gore - more solid, empirical evidence of a profound shift in America's electoral politics.
Still, electoral racism can't be reduced to its most egregious form. The 2012 election may be a test of another form: the tendency of white liberals to hold African American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate who is as competent as his white predecessors.
The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Many progressives complain that Obama's health-care reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of health-care reform. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for gay rights; but Clinton established the "don't ask, don't tell" policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare "reform," cutting off America's neediest despite economic growth.
America's continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but covert military operations were standard under Clinton. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record of his first two years outpaces that of Clinton's first two years.
These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing compromises. One president is white. The other is black.
In 1996, Clinton was reelected with a coalition more robust than his first. His vote among whites increased from 39 to 43 percent.
President Obama has experienced a swift, steep decline in support among whites - from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be their redemption or the nation's.
The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.