This Thursday, Romney campaign co-chair John Sununu said that former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President Obama because both were African-Americans, despited Powell’s stated justifications being based on Obama’s foreign and economic policy record. Sununu’s comments (which are par for his course) brought the simmering racial subtext in this election to the fore: anti-black prejudice has spiked since President Obama’s 2008 victory, when the President likely lost three to five points in the popular vote as a consequence of racist voting.
To discuss the complex questions surrounding race, identity, and voting, ThinkProgress reached out to Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and African Studies at Princeton University and one of the world’s most prominent scholars of race, identity, and politics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
TP: How does this assumption that African American voters think principally in racial terms work to define race in the United States?
KAA: Well [laughs], that’s a complicated question.
Look… I think that it’s …many people who voted for President Obama the first time around had in their minds the fact that they were voting for the first African American president and thought that was a consideration in favor for doing so, and that applies to lots of white people, as well and lots of black people. And in a country with our history, it’s not an unreasonable thought if somebody’s acceptable on other grounds as a president, that that should weigh in his favor. It’s true that President Obama has gotten a larger proportion of the black vote, I believe, than most Democrats. On the other hand, most African Americans vote overwhelmingly for white Democrats, as well as black ones. And the reason for that is that African Americans think Republican Party is less friendly to advancing the causes of black people and doing something about our history of racial inequality than the Democrats are.
And, so, I think that’s the context within which one has to think about the fact the president has done very well with black voters. The situation for minorities in general is such that they’re likely to value the thought that somebody of their own identity is a serious candidate for office. And not just minorities. It applies to women, as well, in country which has a long history of keeping women out of high places. Women have sometimes thought that the fact that someone was a woman was a consideration in favor for voting for her, as indeed have many men who think that the history of exclusion of women from power is a bad thing. And so I think that the identity of a candidate, especially if it’s a minority identity or a historically excluded identity, can be a reasonable basis for voting for them. I’m pretty skeptical that the reason Colin Powell endorsed President Obama was, as it were, simply that he was black. Colin Powell belongs to –- or used to belong, I don’t know what his current party affiliations are –- the moderate wing of the Republican Party and if the moderates in the Republican Party were attending more carefully they would notice that many, well if all of them were attending properly, they would notice that President Obama’s actual policies are pretty close to the polices that have historically been favored by moderate Republicans [laughs].
So I’m sure that Colin Powell would not endorse someone for president whom he didn’t think was not doing a good job for reelection to the presidency, who didn’t think he was doing a good job on domestic and foreign policy, and that I suspect is the main reason why he endorsed him.
TP: Right. And of course, those were his stated reasons, which is sort of why this remark has generated controversy because Sununu is implying that his real reasons are hidden and they really must have to do with race. What’s going on there? How would you analyze this assumption that everything must be about race in context of America’s racial history?
KAA: I think, as I say, it’s inevitable, given our history, that it’s one of the things you think about when you have a chance to elect a man who’s black or a woman. You think about what that means, and a lot of politics is about the meaning of things as much as about any particular matter. But as I say, someone like Colin Powell, who’s been so close to the circle of government most of his adult life, is in a good position to evaluate…whether he thinks the President is doing a good job on the issues he cares about.
And even if it’s the case that Colin Powell’s endorsement and support for the President has an element in it of believing that it’s good a good thing for the country to have a black president, I think that’s a reasonable thought. But it’s rather odd to reduce it to that. And in fact, frankly, I’m more worried about people who vote against President Obama because he’s black than I am people who vote for him because he’s black. [laughs] My guess is that there will be more of those on Mr. Sununu’s side than in the Democratic Party voting against him because he’s black.
I know the President’s people –- I don’t know if the President himself has spoken about this –- the President’s people believe that these two are a wash. That is, the number of people who vote for him, as it were, solely because he’s black is about the same as the number of people who vote against him because he’s black. And what they think is most Americans are smart enough to figure out that can’t be the only question.