03/06/2008 11:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Racism and Clinton's Victory in Ohio

I have four points to make about racism and the result in Ohio's Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday.

First, racism undeniably played an important role. CNN exit polling indicated that 20% of voters said the race of the candidate was important factor (undoubtedly a lower than truthful response), and 59% of those supported Clinton. As has been pointed out, that is a total of 249,299 votes, greater than Clinton's margin of victory. Clinton's greatest percentages were in the 6th and 18th congressional districts, in the rural and largely white Appalachian southeast. Her largest percentages by county were all in rural southern Ohio (e.g., 81% in Scioto and Jackson). This is the area where Gov. Ted Strickland's support had the most impact, but it is also the area where the confederate battle flag may be seen displayed in some windows and yards. Strickland admitted the role of race when deploring it to reporter Mark Naymik of The Plain Dealer ("There's no sense pretending that some prejudice and intolerance isn't there"). Clinton's biggest vote margin by number of votes was in Mahoning County (+23,095), which is 81% white and predominantly blue collar (median income $35,248, high school only 82%).

Second, the correct response to racism is to discuss it, not to ignore it. There is a pervasive, perhaps nearly universal tendency among whites to avoid talking about the distasteful topic of racial animus, and I see this reflected in much of the media analysis of the primary. This is wrong. Silence perpetuates racism. The only hope for dispelling racism is raising people's consciousness about it, and that can only come from conversation and awareness. In picking apart what happened in Ohio, racism should be addressed head-on. Let's have a thorough and public discussion about it.

Third, racism operates on a subconscious level. A common mistake, and a severe restriction on discussing the role of racism, it to conceive of it only in terms of conscious choice. In this instance, a conscious decision to vote against a candidates because his skin isn't white. This isn't the heart of the problem. The more widespread and insidious dimension of racism is subconscious, and is far more subtle. Awareness of racial difference translates into a powerful although unnamed sense of otherness. Whites who insist that they harbor no ill will toward other racial groups nevertheless respond to racial difference as a trigger for preconceptions and a reduced ability to relate to others as being essentially the same as themselves. This dynamic was heartbreakingly displayed by the unemployed white Ohio factory worker on 60 Minutes, who expressed discomfort with Barack Obama based on issues he was "not too clear on" about Obama's patriotism and religion:

Asked what they were, Schoenholtz said, "Well, I'm hearin' he doesn't even know the National Anthem, you know. He wouldn't use the Holy Bible. He's got his own beliefs, got the Muslim beliefs. Couple issues that bothers me at heart."

"You know that's not true," Kroft remarked.

"No. I'm just...this is what I've been told," he replied.

The worker didn't talk about race and probably didn't consciously think about it either. But awareness of racial difference made him susceptible to rumors that intellectually he doubted. It takes trust and identification to resist such rumors, and racism at a subconscious level inhibits the ability to trust and identify.

Fourth, racism played a bigger role in Ohio than other states because the Clinton campaign went negative. Commentators have noted that Obama fared less well among white Democrats in Ohio (27% to 70%) than in earlier states. There has been some chatter (see for example the comments here) about this showing that Ohio is more racist than other states. I don't think this is the story, or at least not the whole story. I think that the racial divide grew in Ohio because Clinton's attacks on Obama were more negative than in earlier contests. Clinton attacked Obama on trust, hammering him as hypocritical over reportsthat an Obama advisor told Canadian diplomatic officials to ignore Obama's attacks on NAFTA. She attacked Obama's integrity, sending out a mailer that accused him of refusing to stand up for workers at a closed Maytag plant in Illinois. She played on voter's subconscious fears with the famous red phone ad about the safety of children in their beds at night. Although Clinton didn't explicitly push the whisper campaign about Obama's religion, she failed the test when it came to authoritatively squashing it. (When Steve Kroft asked her about it on that 60 Minutes episode, she said that Obama is a Christian "as far as I know.") Clinton's attacks on Obama's character and integrity put the burden on white Democrats to overcome the inherent limitations on their ability to trust and relate to a black person. The racism was already in place, but negative campaigning brought it into play to a greater degree than in other states.

Cross-posted at my place, Ohio Daily Blog.