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Googling anti-Obama racism

Posted: June 15, 2012 10:17 a.m.
Updated: June 18, 2012 5:00 a.m.

On the night of Barack Obama’s presidential election victory, Americans seemed to shed our troubled legacy of racism. Or did we?

Obama’s victory did offer at least one gift to conservatives. It gave them a new excuse to tell black Americans to stop complaining about white racism.

In one of the more thoughtful analyses at the time, social scientists Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The conventional wisdom among voting-rights advocates and political scientists has been that whites will not vote for black candidates in significant numbers ... (b)ut the myth of racist white voters was destroyed by this year’s presidential election.”

Or was it? The ferocious rise of birthers (who cling to the myth that Obama wasn’t really born in Hawaii), radical tea party conservatives and the most gridlocked Congress in more than a century causes many to wonder: Could ill feelings about his race have prevented Obama from receiving even more white votes than he received in 2008?

And, more currently, could racism reemerge as a factor significant enough to sink his re-election bid this November in what already is shaping up to be a much tighter race?

Attempts to measure racism are persistently flummoxed, ironically, by the success of the civil rights movement in driving blatant racism underground. We tend to lie about our own racism, not only to pollsters but also to ourselves, even if we have to bend and reshape our definition of the R-word to do it.

Yet, undaunted by this challenge, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard, has devised for our consideration an alternative index of racism in America based not on polling but on our Google searches and voting patterns.

Using Google Insights, which tells researchers how often words are searched in different parts of the United States, he tries to quantify racial prejudice in different parts of the country based solely on how often certain racially-charged words -- “nigger,” for example, but not “nigga,” which tends to pop up in rap lyrics -- are used on Google.

He used data from 2004 to 2007 to measure regional tastes and attitudes before they were directly influenced by feelings toward Obama. After 2008, the author noted in an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Obama” became “a prevalent term in racially charged searches.”

Then he predicted how many votes Obama should have received based on how many votes 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry received and how much of a vote gain was experienced by congressional Democratic candidates in 2008.

His conclusion, as he wrote in the Times: “Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote.”

That’s more than enough to turn a close election but, you know what? Almost anything is. Unmentioned by the author’s unusual study, for example, is how much of a difference prejudice against Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith could cost the Republican candidate.

And, even presuming Stephens-Davidowitz’s study is accurate, the good news for Obama and the nation, in light of our turbulent history with race, is that the bad news isn’t worse.

The racially charged Web searches are clustered right where any knowledgeable observer would expect them to be, in areas that Obama’s campaign has little reason to expect to win.

Topping the list, for example, is West Virginia, whose Democratic primary voters recently startled the nation by giving 41 percent of their votes to a white convicted felon instead of the incumbent president.

Other high-ranking regions included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi -- areas known for small, rural American towns where Sarah Palin books sell big, whether anyone actually reads them or not.

In other words, the Google-based racism index, even if it is accurate, tells us what we already know. Obama has parts of the country that don’t like him for racial reasons, and they may marginally outnumber those who prefer him because of his biracial background. Either way, Obama faces a tough contest this year, especially if such nonracial issues as the economy don’t swing his way.

With that in mind, the most hopeful sign for the nation’s racial future is not how much race matters in this contest, but how little.

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