Are Voters Really Moving Beyond Race?

Posted August 20, 2010 at 2:26pm

From Barack Obama’s election as president to a white Congressman fending off African-American challengers in a majority-black district, have Americans moved beyond race as a determining factor in their vote choice?

A couple of weeks ago, Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, the white, Jewish incumbent, won re-nomination over former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who is African-American. The district has a black voting age population of 59 percent and the percentage of black voters was even higher in the Democratic primary, but Cohen still prevailed with 79 percent.

At the end of June, African-American former state legislator Tim Scott won the GOP nomination in South Carolina’s 1st district, which has a black VAP of 21 percent, but considerably less than that in the Republican primary. Scott finished first in the initial round of balloting with 31 percent and won the runoff with 68 percent.

Last year, Chinese-American Judy Chu (D) won the special election in California’s 32nd district, where the Hispanic VAP is 62 percent compared with only 18 percent Asian.

And finally last cycle, Vietnamese-American Ahn “Joseph” Cao (R) was elected in Louisiana’s 2nd district, which is 64 percent black.

At face value, these elections point to an American electorate that has crossed a threshold when it comes to racial politics. But a deeper look shows that race matters, except when it doesn’t.

“I don’t believe there’s a post-racial America. Not even close,” said Dr. David Bositis, a longtime scholar of black politics and voting at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

In each of these recent House examples, there are other mitigating factors that aided a candidate’s ability to overcome their status as a racial minority in the district.

In Louisiana, Cao’s election had more to do with the $90,000 in cash found in then-Rep. William Jefferson’s (D) freezer than the color of either man’s skin. It will be interesting to see how Cao performs this fall against a black opponent who isn’t under federal investigation. He is widely viewed by race prognosticators as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent on the ballot this fall.

In California, even though Hispanics make up nearly two-thirds of the voting-age population in the 32nd district, they likely make up a significantly less percentage of the actual electorate. Chu also won the Democratic nomination with 33 percent, while two credible Hispanic candidates received a combined 36 percent in the primary.

In South Carolina, Scott is defined more by his staunchly conservative views than his race. “Scott has totally and completely adopted the white perspective on things,” according to Bositis.

Even still, Scott’s presumptive election this fall as a black Republican in a district that is three-quarters white is notable, particularly in light of liberals’ caricature of southern Republicans as a voting bloc that harbors racist sentiments.

And in Tennessee, Cohen’s ideology is much closer to the African-American community than Scott’s. But he was initially elected in 2006 after winning the Democratic nomination with 31 percent against multiple black candidates and has had the luxury of running against primary opponents in the past two elections who were either flawed or ran race-based campaigns that backfired.