On Thursday night’s Tavis Smiley, UC Irvine professor and author Michael Tesler made the claim that “content analysis” showed that President Obama has brought up race less than any other president since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Smiley brought on Tesler to discuss his new book that asks if the election of President Obama made America a “post racial” or “more racial” society. Tesler brought up that when Obama got elected and particularly when he introduced Obamacare, negative racial attitudes or “racialization” as he called it, rose among Republicans.
Citing no sources, Tesler parroted Smiley’s supposition that Obama “ran away” from the issue of race, yet that still didn’t keep conservatives from playing into their racist tendencies. Yet, Tesler said, Obama didn’t bring these attitudes out from his own doing.
TESLER: [O]bama has pretty much ran away from race. When you do content analysis he talks about race actually less than any president since FDR. He is boxed in a way. But just the perception of Barack Obama, as the first African-American president, led people to believe that Barack Obama was supporting racial policies at a rate much greater than he actually was.
Smiley then asked, “What does it say about the American people” that because “they see this guy” with “melanin in his skin” so they “prescribe to him this notion of being racial with all his public policy?”
Tesler tried to backtrack and admit, “It wasn’t everybody” just “among a certain segment of the population” before he blamed the racist attitudes to ignorance.
TESLER: [O]ne of the things we know about American voters is that they don't know much about politics. And so they base things on cues. And one cue I think that the voters have taken is that Barack Obama is African-American therefore he is more supportive of African American interests than another Democrat might be. One thing you see this in is party identification, so before Barack Obama becomes President, before he becomes president, most low education voters don't know that the democratic party is more supportive of African-American interests than the Republican party. But that has been a cue and as such has led to racialization.
See the partial transcript from the Thursday night May 5 show below:
TAVIS SMILEY: When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, many posited that we were entering in a post racial period in politics. I didn't buy it then and I ain't buying it now. And professor and author Michael Tesler argues that the intensifying influence of race in our politics is driving and polarizing partisan divide and the vitriolic atmosphere that’s come to characterize American politics these days. His latest text is titled, I love this, Post Racial or Most Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era. Michael Tesler, great to have you on the program.
MICHAEL TESLER: Thanks for having me.
SMILEY: This notion that we would be entering in a post racial era because of the election of Barack Obama as I mentioned earlier, I didn't buy it then. Did you?
TESLER: No, I didn't buy it at all and I have been studying race my whole life. And it seemed at the time far-fetched, but it was a popular narrative. There was some polling data to back it up too. Blacks and whites to like, had high hopes we were going to enter this era where race relations were going to be improved and that things would become deracialized.
SMILEY: What happened?
TESLER: Anything but has happened. And that is where we go off in the book.It starts off with these high hopes. It started with John McCain's concession speech. If you remember that, it was very much a post racial ode. Where he was uh, “Let there be no reason now for anybody to not cherish their citizenship” and that was the narrative. But we are collecting data all through the 2008 election and underneath the surface, we are seeing this huge impact of racial attitudes. That we’ve never seen before. And it cut both ways, in that Obama was more popular among racial liberals but he was losing a lot from racial conservatives. So he may have won but it certainly was not a post racial atmosphere that he was entering.
SMILEY: One of the most fascinating things about your text, is the impact that the presidency, of the first African-American president has had on the nonracial parts of our engagement. The nonracial parts of the country, that’s been fascinating to me.
TESLER: Yeah, that to me was always the most interesting. We might expect that these attitudes about race, would have such a strong impact on the first ever black president. But we also found in our text from 2010 which we wrote called "Obama's Race" there was a spill over racialization taking place. And what the spillover racialization did, with someone like Hillary Clinton who racial liberals had always liked, now in March of 2008 when she is running against Barack Obama, she becomes the champion of racially conservative voters in mid Pennsylvania and West Virginia. We see a complete flip around. So what happened, once we finished that book we are right in 2009 in the middle of the health care debate. And it looked to be one of the issues that was becoming racialized. And when we looked at the data, we saw a huge, uh a big impact on racial attitudes from where it was before Barack Obama became president.
SMILEY: Speaking of his health care push and his becoming the president, and that of course becomes the first major initiative, that he is trying to push through, it's fascinating to me to go there your text and look at the data. I want to phrase this the right way, in terms of how people racialized him even as -- my phrase, not yours -- even as he was running from race-- He’s running from it, but people racialized him anyway.
TESLER: I do cite you in the book and your radio co-host at the time, for pointing out that you know, Obama has pretty much ran away from race. When you do content analysis he talks about race actually less than any president since FDR. He is boxed in a way. But just the perception of Barack Obama, as the first African-American president, led people to believe that Barack Obama was supporting racial policies at a rate much greater than he actually was.
SMILEY: What does it say about the American people. That again, they see this guy because of the melanin in his skin, they prescribe to him this notion of being racial with all his public policy. When he, to your point, he is basically anything but. Let’s say about us.
TESLER: Well, one thing I should say, it wasn't everybody. There was -- it occurs among a certain segment of the population. But one of the things we know about American voters is that they don't know much about politics. And so they base things on cues. And one cue I think that the voters have taken is that Barack Obama is African-American therefore he is more supportive of African American interests than another Democrat might be. One thing you see this in is party identification, so before Barack Obama becomes President, before he becomes president, most low education voters don't know that the democratic party is more supportive of African-American interests than the Republican party. But that has been a cue and as such has led to racialization.
SMILEY: How did his being racialized in view at least impact his ability to get done what he wanted to accomplish?
TESLER: That is an interesting question. That's a little harder to dig into with the data. But I do think that it was easier to rally opposition behind Barack Obama. The one piece of data that's in the books, that may be somewhat supportive of this, is the October 2013 shutdown. So when they voted to reopen the government in mid October, what I did was look at the district. So all Democrats vote to reopen and a minority of Republicans vote to reopen. And I look where are the votes coming from? And they are coming primarily from -- the ones voting against reopening the government-- are coming from mostly racially conservative districts, the most racially conservative districts and that is a very strong predictor of where members of Congress are voting. And to the extent that cooperating with Obama is bad policies at the local level, I do think it may have contributed to these special difficulty Obama had on getting Republicans to move on his agenda.