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In Case You Thought We Were Now in a Post-Racial World

Thomas Whitley

There has been some heated debate on my Facebook page over a comment that Mitt Romney made last week while he was in Michigan:

No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.

Some (like me) saw this as directly referencing the "birther" controversy and while not being a racist himself, saw Mitt Romney as playing race up a bit, albeit in his subtext, to shore up the enthusiasm of the parts of his base that are racist or racially resentful. Others thought that we were way out of line.

Ezra Klein has weighed in on the unusual place that race has taken in the 2012 election.

Race and the 2012 Election | Ezra Klein | Washington Post: Most of the issues dominating the 2012 election make sense. There’s the economy, of course. The budget deficit. Medicare. Obamacare.

But click through the “videos” section of Mitt Romney’s Web site and you’ll see something odd: His campaign is running more ads about welfare than just about any other issue. Of the 12 most recent ads posted, five are about welfare. That’s more than the number dedicated to health care (four) or introducing Paul Ryan (one) or the economy (one).

This is quite telling. For starters, it tells us that Romney's welfare ads are working particularly well. Beyond this, though, studies have been done to examine the role of race in the 2008 election and in people's response to a Romney welfare ad.

“Among those who saw it,” reports Tesler, “racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle class and African Americans. Moreover, seeing the ad did not activate other attitudes, such as party or ideological self-identification. It only primed racial resentment.”

This is where things get tricky. Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.

Klein also references a study done by Harvard economics research Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wherein he gathered data from Google searches, looking at how frequently racist search terms were entered and he ranked areas of the country based on the data. This data was then used to compare Obama's share of the vote (2008) with John Kerry's share of the vote (2004) in those areas.

The result? Stephens-Davidowitz found that Obama had lost 3 percent to 5 percent of the popular vote compared to what you would have expected. Or as he put it, Obama’s race, gave “his opponent the equivalent of a home-state advantage countrywide.”

You should go read Klein's piece and the studies he references. Race, racism, race-baiting, and the like are all difficult subjects to talk about. Many fear being labeled a racist or unjustly labeling someone else a racist. This is understandable. But this is a conversation that needs to be had and it's one that should be had in reality, with evidence and data.

We are learning what many of us have known or suspect for some while now. The election of Barack Obama as President did not suddenly make racial issues go away; in fact, a lot of data shows that racial polarization has increased in the past 4 years. We have a long way to go.

Finally, I will state again here as I have elsewhere: I do not think Mitt Romney is a racist or that most Republicans are racist, but certainly some elements of the base that Mitt Romney hopes will vote for him are racist or somehow racially resentful. His campaign knows this and his welfare ads are playing into the racially-charged opinions of some viewers (notice that all of the hardworking people are white). And to think that the Romney campaign is completely oblivious to this fact is quite naive. So, do I think Mitt Romney is trying to play on the racist sentiments of a group of his constituents? Without a doubt. And it's a shameful, but potentially politically smart, move to make.