News Flash: Not All Black Voters Think the Same

By Keith Woods

I appeared the other day on a segment of the NewsHour with the University of Pennsylvania's Kathleen Hall Jamieson and The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib to talk about how race is being handled in coverage of the presidential nominating process.

I raised two issues (I could think of 20) journalists need to take up, particularly covering the democratic primaries: dumping the race and class euphemisms that serve as proxy for a real discussion about these defining issues, and parsing the racial voting patterns in a way that's more thoughtful and accurate.

We talked about some of those euphemisms: Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, lunch bucket Democrats, blue collar workers -- used as substitutes, in one construction or the other, for white people. Hall Jamieson added that journalists should do away with the imprecise (or downright meaningless) phrases that make their way into stories about race relations: Sen. Obama's "post-racial" candidacy, for example, or "the race [or gender] card."

The point I most wanted to make, though, was this: throughout this campaign, journalists -- especially the 24-hour cable set -- have parsed the racial vote by providing all manner of categories for white voters -- including the euphemisms above, while reporting on black voters as though their motivations are all the same. Asians, Latinos and Native Americans don't fare any better when they're mentioned at all.

So you get phrases like, "African American voters and liberals," as though liberal is a race to which black people don't belong. The more insidious effect is that journalists ascribe complex -- if hardly comprehensive -- motives to why white people vote the way they do, without spending much if any time doing the same for black people.

So a white voter might be weighing class ("blue-collar voters"), education ("uneducated white voters") gender ("women voters") geography ("rural voters"), or who knows what else as they decide between senators Obama and Clinton. Black voters? Well, they tend to vote for Obama.

Why? I can't say I've seen much effort to answer that one, leaving the public to conclude that black voters are basing their votes on nothing but race. Immediately after the show, I got an e-mail from a woman who said I had missed the point totally, but who, instead, made my point.

"While you undoubtedly have good arguments," she wrote, " ... these arguments really don't apply to discussions about the Democratic primary. This is for the simple reason that almost the entire African American demographic supports Mr. Obama irrespective of differences within the community such as education, wealth and gender. Accordingly, in this context, making other distinctions is pointless. ... I imagine that most African-Americans support Mr. Obama because they think their interests will be most fully protected by him, and they are probably right. It isn't all that complicated.”

Wouldn't it be nice if journalism did a good enough job that this woman didn't have to "imagine" what motivates black voters and that she understood the full range of calculations at play when a black person stands before the ballot box? It may not be "all that complicated," but it is much more complex.

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.


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