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The irony of Obama’s optimism on race and politics

Zackary Canepari/Vox

Asked in a recent interview with Vox.com whether he's concerned about the merging of racial and partisan identity (for example, the way opinions on racial issues like the Zimmerman verdict or the grand jury's decision in Ferguson are split by party now more than questions like these have ever been before), Barack Obama said, "I don't worry about that because I don't think it's going to last."

He's likely right, but the reason is ironic: the greatest source of hope for decreased racial polarization in politics might actually be the fact that his time in the White House is coming to an end.

The merging of racial and political identities

When we talk about racial polarization in politics, we're talking about how much race — and views about race — can predict political views, as well as how a person's political party can predict his or her feelings about race and race relations.

During Obama's time in office, the phenomenon has actually increased, as political scientist Michael Tesler's research shows. According to his book, Obama's Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America, the 2008 election was the most racialized one in modern American history, meaning that there's been no recent campaign in which racial attitudes did as much to drive political behavior. And that's continued after the election. Tesler goes into that in his forthcoming book, Most-Racial: The Growing Racialization of Mass Politics in the Obama Era.

"Race has become more salient [in politics] during the Obama presidency, despite his best efforts to avoid the topic of race," Tesler said in an interview. The reason isn't complicated, and it's not because of anything Obama did. Race, he says, has always been a powerful predictor of people's political opinions, and it's "simply more on the top of people's heads when it comes to Barack Obama" than it would be under a white president.

That "top of the head" positioning in race is powerful. In some of his studies, Tesler found that simply dropping the first African-American president's name made voters with higher levels of racial resentment more likely to oppose Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as well as the Affordable Care Act  (aka Obamacare).

Have no doubt, these results are not about the substance of these issues. They're about Obama, and this proves it: in another experiment, Tesler showed pictures of Obama's dog, Bo, and asked subjects about their impressions of the very uncontroversial Portuguese water poodle. But in some cases, Tesler fibbed and said the picture was actually of Ted Kennedy's dog, Splash.

Amazingly, he found that racial attitudes drove opinions on Bo much more powerfully than they drove opinions on Splash:

So, the relationship between race (or attitudes about race) and politics has become more intense since Obama came onto the scene. Further, Tesler's work has shown that in no recent period has political behavior done as much to drive racial attitudes. As he wrote at the Washington Post in May 2014, "racial attitudes and partisan attachments have become more closely aligned in the Obama era than they were before Obama's rise to prominence."

Just look at this graph of Republican attitudes on interracial marriage and affirmative action. You can see that opposition spikes upon Obama's election:

Then there are findings like these: a 42-point partisan gap on whether Donald Sterling should have to sell the Clippers after a racist rant caught on tape and a 38-point gap on whether 12 Years a Slave — an unflinching dramatization of America's racist history — should win an Oscar.

According to Tesler, the polarization goes both ways — it's not just that political affiliation increasingly determines views on race.  It's also that, under Obama, racial liberals (people who think current racial inequality is because of structural impediments) are becoming more Democratic and racial conservatives (people who think current racial inequality is because of individual failings and lack of work ethic or cultural pathology) are becoming more Republican.

What might actually make things better is the end of Obama's presidency

Tesler thinks the patterns in racial and political attitudes we're seeing are likely to be pretty stubborn and that it's most likely that party identification will continue to be racialized.

"The Democratic Party is seen increasingly as the party of Obama and minorities, and the Republican Party is seen as the party of white people and the party of opposition. It might be difficult to displace that public persona," he said.

While there is some basis for optimism about decreased polarization, it doesn't have to do with the "people are getting more and more comfortable with the diversity of this country" theory that Obama seems to embrace. In fact, Harvard political scientist Ryan D. Enos' research suggests that, for whites, demographic shifts and increased "intergroup contact" with people of other backgrounds may lead to exclusionary thinking and more conservative views.

Rather, the greatest source of hope, in his view, is actually that the current racial polarization of politics could just be an "Obama-specific phenomenon." Meaning, when Obama and his racial awareness-triggering identity depart the White House, some of the more striking links between race and politics in Americans' minds could go with him.

"When he leaves office, let's say, a Republican like Jeb Bush comes in, he moderates a little bit on immigration, and race kind of vanishes from the scene a little bit and is replaced by other issues, [racial polarization in politics] could go into a period of retreat," Tesler explained.

So, Obama's optimism about the future of racial polarization in politics, despite the fact that it's incongruous with what's happened while he's been in the White House, makes some sense. But the reason for this might actually have less to do with the evolution of Americans' thinking during his presidency and more to do with the end of his time in office.