Democratic Racism Isn’t Dead

by Robert VerBruggen

There is an interesting new study that suggests racial bias decreased support for Obama in 2008, based on Google data about searches that include the word “n—r,” which was used to measure white racism in about 200 different areas of the U.S. I find the study basically plausible — there are racists in America, and presumably they’d rather not vote for the targets of their racism — but here are few quick notes. 

One, as John Sides of The American Prospect points out, it’s worth asking not merely “Did some whites refuse to vote for Obama because of his race?” but also, “What would have happened, on net, if Obama had been white?” I suspect that Obama’s race (A) increased black turnout and (B) raised support and increased turnout among white voters who were eager to prove how not-racist they were.

Two, there are some problems with using Google searches that include “n—r” as a proxy for racism — The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield points some out here. However, I take exception to Greenfield’s assertion that “the people looking up the n-word probably aren’t the type who would vote Democrat in the first place.”

In fact, the General Social Survey explicitly asks people their party identification, and also whether they’d be willing to vote for a black candidate if their party nominated one. The data reveal that some Democrats and independents not only won’t vote for black candidates, but will reveal that fact to a stranger.

Looking at the data for whites collected in 2008 and 2010, we see some rather weird trends. On the whole, 4.9 percent of whites said they would not vote for a black president. Middle-of-the-road independents were above this mark at 6.8 percent. However, Republican- and Democrat-leaning independents were the least (admittedly) racist groups, at 3.1 and 3.2 percent respectively. Republicans and strong Republicans were indeed a bit above the average (5.6 and 6.1 percent), but Democrats and strong Democrats weren’t far behind (4.7 and 4.9 percent). So, it’s entirely conceivable that “the people looking up the n-word” might be “the type who would vote Democrat.”

My data, arrived at using this tool, is online here. I’ve also included a table that includes only whites from the East and West South Central regions of the country, whose white residents are the most likely to say they won’t vote for a black president.

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