The 2012 Presidential Election: Post-Racial?

By Myra Saturen
October 11, 2012

"The selection of a United States president is distinguished by stark racial division," said Dr. CharletonDr. Charleton D. McIlwain D. McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. 

On October 4, the day after the first United States presidential campaign debate, McIlwain discussed "Dark Democrats and Light Republicans: The Race for the White House."  The talk took place at Northampton Community College (NCC) in Lipkin Theatre, as part of the College's 45th anniversary celebration. McIlwain examined how racial division is playing out in the current campaign and its implications for the future. 

McIlwain has a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Oklahoma, is the author of several publications and is a sought-after commentator on race and politics who has been interviewed by CNN, NPR, Le Monde, the New York Times and other international media.  He is currently co-authoring a book, Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns and is the author of  The Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity.  His scholarly work has been published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, Semiotica, Journal of Black Studies, TAMARA Journal of Critical Postmodern Organizational Science, American Behavioral Scientist, Communication Quarterly, and in chapters in edited volumes.

In his talk at NCC,  McIlwain analyized racial imagery and language and their powerful usage in the present presidential campaign.  "Romney needs white people," McIlwain repeated at intervals during his talk.  Consider the math:  80% of racial minority voters chose Obama in 2008.  Forty-three percent of whites voted for Obama.  A recent Wall Street Journal poll rated black support for Romney to be 0%.  "A staggering feat," McIlwain said, ironically. 

For those who believe that Barack Obama's election as the country's first black president in 2008 removed racial considerations from campaigns, McIlwain quoted statements that indicate the contrary.  As one of several examples, he quoted Republican Senator Linsday Graham: "We [Republicans] are losing the demographic.  There are not generally enough angry white guys for [us] to stay in business over the long term." 

McIlwain discussed the change that has occurred between the election of 2008 and that of 2012.  He contrasted the presidential campaign of 2008 with previous ones involving black candidates.  In the past, he said, African American candidates had asked white voters to set aside prejudice and vote for them despite their race.  Obama, McIlwain said, was the first black candidate to use a "racial distinction strategy," appealing to racial optimism. "He included his personal biography, incorporating it within the broader narrative of progress we define as American.  He altered the trajectory to be more consistent with national ideals of equal opportunity." 

Four years later, however, a new race-laced narrative appeared, replete with racist stereotypes of African Americans and surfacing on websites and in the speeches of Republican politicians such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. McIlwain said, "Romney dipped a toe into the murky waters of birtherism," exploiting some white voters' view that Obama represents "otherness." 

McIlwain described an insidious and additional, new kind of racism that has been injected into the 2012 campaign.  "Right-wing conservatives ridicule the validity of racism," McIlwain said.  "They dismiss it out of hand, as having no basis in actual experience and not to be taken seriously. In an election where the stakes of winning and losing are huge and when you have the electorate so polarized, there is fertile ground for the types of racial attacks we see in this campaign." 

McIlwain suggested instead that there be a position among extremes:  that of acknowledging that race matters and that discrimination exists; that of saying that racism exists everywhere and with everyone; and that of denying racism's reality and dismissing the issue as laughable.    

Throughout his talk, McIlwain emphasized his points by showing video clips and slides during his PowerPoint presentation.  He touched upon the ever-changing media and their role in the electorate's polarization and answered questions from the audience. 

After speaking at Main Campus, McIlwain proceeded to the Monroe Campus to give his talk there. 











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