How Racist Are We? (Pretty racist).

A New York Times reporter uses Google to track racism that doesn’t show up in voter surveys.

A huge proportion of the searches I looked at were for jokes about African-Americans. (I did not include searches that included the word “nigga” because these searches were mostly for rap lyrics.) I used data from 2004 to 2007 because I wanted a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Mr. Obama. From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches.

The state with the highest racially charged search rate in the country was West Virginia. Other areas with high percentages included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.

Once I figured out which parts of the country had the highest racially charged search rates, I could test whether Mr. Obama underperformed in these areas. I predicted how many votes Mr. Obama should have received based on how many votes John Kerry received in 2004 plus the average gain achieved by other 2008 Democratic Congressional candidates. The results were striking: The higher the racially charged search rate in an area, the worse Mr. Obama did.

Consider two media markets, Denver and Wheeling (which is a market evenly split between Ohio and West Virginia). Mr. Kerry received roughly 50 percent of the votes in both markets. Based on the large gains for Democrats in 2008, Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling. Denver and Wheeling, though, exhibit different racial attitudes. Denver had the fourth lowest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the vote there, just as predicted. Wheeling had the seventh highest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote.

Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally.

Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals.

If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012. Most modern presidential elections are close. Losing even two percentage points lowers the probability of a candidate’s winning the popular vote by a third. And prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.

There is the possibility, of course, that racial prejudice will play a smaller role in 2012 than it did in 2008, now that the country is familiar with a black president. Some recent events, though, suggest otherwise. I mentioned earlier that the rate of racially charged searches in West Virginia was No. 1 in the country and that the state showed a strong aversion to Mr. Obama in 2008. It recently held its Democratic presidential primary, in which Mr. Obama was challenged by a convicted felon. The felon, who is white, won 41 percent of the vote.

43 comments for “How Racist Are We? (Pretty racist).

  1. relativenancy
    June 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    So proud to be a native and current resident of WV (/sarcasm).

  2. Wirbelwind
    June 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Isn’t it normal to at least read jokes on the Internet ? And yes, also about nationalities and racist ? As long as they are funny and somebody reads them only to themselves I don’t think there’s any problem.

  3. Anon21
    June 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Sorry, but what happened to the “Bonnarapists” post from earlier?

  4. librarygoose
    June 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Sorry, but what happened to the “Bonnarapists” post from earlier?

    The original author asked Jill to take it down.

  5. librarygoose
    June 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    sn’t it normal to at least read jokes on the Internet ? And yes, also about nationalities and racist ? As long as they are funny and somebody reads them only to themselves I don’t think there’s any problem.

    I highly doubt these people keep their racism to themselves. It tends to be a thing that shows the fuck up in your life and actions.

    ALSO: racism is never funny.

  6. Wirbelwind
    June 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Well, dead baby comedy sometimes is. And making fun of nationalities. And a few other things. The most important thing is always to tell jokes that you are certain your companions will actually find funny.

    • June 11, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Well, dead baby comedy sometimes is. And making fun of nationalities. And a few other things. The most important thing is always to tell jokes that you are certain your companions will actually find funny.

      Or if your companions find racist jokes funny, to find new companions.

  7. Tony
    June 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    The seminal, foundational work in American voting behavior is The American Voter (1960) by several researchers out of the University of Michigan who made widespread use of voter surveys. It’s the foundational work because the study of voting behavior was transformed radically as never before or since with the rise of random sampling and scientific surveying in the 1940s and 1950s. While many new studies and methods have arisen since then, the basic methodologies (surveys) had remained unchanged for about half a century.

    Social scientists, particular those studying individual behavior, are now sitting on the cusp of a new methodological revolution of which this piece is one example. There’s an explosion of information about people’s behavior as there never was before. While this new information isn’t randomly sampled (it limits to those who use Google, in this case) it’s so numerous, so available, and so diverse that it’s bound to be used by those studying everything from revolutions to predicting elections. I just think that’s so amazing and I would be so excited if I were in one of these fields that could benefit from this as a graduate student right now. There’s literally hundreds of potential original, groundbreaking dissertations out there waiting to be written from Google search results, Twitter content, and the like.

    As for the content of the article, it’s not too surprising. Appalachia is the area that swung the most away from Obama vs. Kerry or previous Democrats. Ironically though if you look at places like traditionally Republican eastern Tennessee, in the heart of Appalachia, they swung *towards* Obama, whereas traditionally Democratic western and central Tennessee swung away from him. And the biggest swing away from Obama in West Virginia was in the coal mining counties in the far south where Democrats have traditionally dominated the most.

  8. Azalea
    June 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    I don’t know…a big chunk of the racist jokes I’ve read and seen (those photos with huge captions on the photos) are about POC posted from POC POC. example a picture of a little black toddler in a toy car and a white police officer pulling him over on the sidewalk with the caption “it’s because Im black isnt it?”

  9. fanshawe
    June 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Isn’t it normal to at least read jokes on the Internet ? And yes, also about nationalities and racist ? As long as they are funny and somebody reads them only to themselves I don’t think there’s any problem.

    I suppose it could be the case that these places have a unique affinity for Chris Rock’s stand-up. But I don’t think that is the most likely explanation.

  10. June 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Well, dead baby comedy sometimes is

    While it’s true that no dead baby is going to be hurt or offended by a dead baby joke, I’m pretty sure there are many parents who have lost children who would be.

    And making fun of nationalities.

    So, um.. racist humour? No, still not funny.

    I just had went through a shitstorm of a Facebook debate about Jason Alexander where people were actually arguing that someone’s right to a cheap laugh trumps basic human decency – really don’t want to get back into that debate here as well.

  11. librarygoose
    June 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    don’t know…a big chunk of the racist jokes I’ve read and seen (those photos with huge captions on the photos) are about POC posted from POC POC. example a picture of a little black toddler in a toy car and a white police officer pulling him over on the sidewalk with the caption “it’s because Im black isnt it?”

    Hmmm…I view that as a joke about racism, not a racist joke.

    But seriously, as a white person, I’d really rather not have my white friends tell me racist jokes, and if my POC friends do…I’m sure I’d just act fucking awkward, giggle slightly and hope no one looked at me. I’m not perfect.

  12. Bagelsan
    June 11, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    I’d hate to see what else correlates with racism based on internet searches… I’m gonna go with “goat-fucking porn.” Any other ideas?

  13. Bagelsan
    June 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Hmmm…I view that as a joke about racism, not a racist joke.

    Ditto. But sometimes it would be hard to determine which was which, especially if you didn’t know the source of the joke (who invented it), so I’m curious how that kind of joke was counted.

  14. June 11, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    I don’t know…a big chunk of the racist jokes I’ve read and seen (those photos with huge captions on the photos) are about POC posted from POC POC. example a picture of a little black toddler in a toy car and a white police officer pulling him over on the sidewalk with the caption “it’s because Im black isnt it?”

    Azalea, I don’t know if you want to answer this and I won’t press if you don’t want to, but I’m really stumped on how that example is a racist joke. I would have guessed that it’s a joke about white cops’ racism against black people by extending the “driving while black” phenomenon to an even more absurd situation, but not about making fun of or undermining black people themselves, which is how I would define a racist joke (e.g., the photoshop of the White House to have a watermelon patch) as opposed to a joke about racism that does not perpetuate racism but lampoons it.

    BUT I am not black and therefore may seriously be misunderstanding this joke you described and the way in which it is racist. Any clarification that could be offered would be greatly appreciated as clearly I’ve hit the limits of my own comprehension.

  15. Wirbelwind
    June 11, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Try ” futa furry on tentacle” and be amazed at the number of hits.

  16. librarygoose
    June 11, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Ditto. But sometimes it would be hard to determine which was which, especially if you didn’t know the source of the joke (who invented it), so I’m curious how that kind of joke was counted.

    This. And what Jadey said. Any further explanation would be studiously read and appreciated.

  17. Alexandra
    June 11, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    The implication that it’s only incorrect to read unfunny racist jokes is a little odd.

    Many jokes are simultaneously offensive and funny – humor, imho, comes more from the cleverness and structure of the joke than the subject matter, and it is possible to be witty and racist simultaneously (although many racist jokes seem to have, as the punch line, “BLACK PEOPLE” which is neither witty nor clever).

    Just because something is funny, however, doesn’t mean it should be retold or encouraged. Dead baby jokes, for instance, are very funny when you’re thirteen and developmentally NEED to push the envelope and be inappropriate. Dead baby jokes told in any context other than the back of the school bus, however…

  18. valentifan69
    June 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I don’t know. I think a lot of the humor (or ‘humor’) people find in racist jokes is the racism. A lot of the races in ‘An X walks into a bar…’ could be interchanged, but you couldn’t switch it with ‘An idiot walks into a bar…’ without it losing something.

  19. SophiaBlue
    June 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Another thing is that finding racist jokes funny is coming from a place of privilege. One of the things people say about humor is that it has to come from a place of safety, and racist humor (as well as sexist humor, homophobic humor, transphobic humor, ableist humor, etc.) is not safe for the people it applies to, not when the attitudes expressed in the joke are also present in society.

  20. Abee
    June 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    I don’t know…a big chunk of the racist jokes I’ve read and seen (those photos with huge captions on the photos) are about POC posted from POC POC. example a picture of a little black toddler in a toy car and a white police officer pulling him over on the sidewalk with the caption “it’s because Im black isnt it?”

    But then, you’re not out there searching for racist jokes on the internet are you? (I hope you’re not). I’ve never been to Stormfront, but I bet they have a lot of jokes on there. I bet you and I can’t even imagine the kind of racist “jokes” that exist on the internet, because we don’t surround ourselves with racists.

  21. Chiara
    June 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Dead baby jokes, for instance, are very funny when you’re thirteen and developmentally NEED to push the envelope and be inappropriate. Dead baby jokes told in any context other than the back of the school bus, however…

    People keep saying dead baby jokes but I don’t get it… is people making jokes about dead babies like some kind of endemic in America or something? People just don’t do that over here.

  22. June 11, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    I used data from 2004 to 2007 because I wanted a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Mr. Obama. From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches.

    Sort of off-topic, but sort of not, I remember a clip of President Bush once getting very upset for a reporter calling him “Mr. Bush,” because the proper way to refer to a president is “President So-And-So” or “Mr./Ms. President.” Since Obama was elected, I see him referred to officially as “Mr. Obama” all the time. Was Bush just being overly-entitled, or are reporters being disrespectful, intentionally or not?

    On the topic of racist/sexist/other jokes that rely on making fun of someone in a marginalized group: I think that jokes really rely on the audience and who is telling them. Of course racism isn’t funny, and neither are racists, but as some people noted above, there can be a fine line between a racist joke and a joke about racism. Also, as a woman who is obviously quite offended at sexism, when someone who I know not to be a sexist tells a sexist joke, I will probably think it’s funny and laugh without feeling bad. But it has to be a good joke, like what Alexandra said at #18.

    And making fun of nationalities.

    So, um.. racist humour? No, still not funny.

    I think nationalism and racism can be defined differently. A black and a white US citizen are both nationally “Americans,” despite their “racial” differences. I know in the US, we make fun of Canada a lot, and I think most of the jokes about Canadians are told with white people in mind. I mean, you could argue that it’s still offensive to make fun of a whole country rather than a whole race, but it somehow seems markedly less offensive than racial jokes, depending on how it’s delivered.

  23. June 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    I mean, you could argue that it’s still offensive to make fun of a whole country rather than a whole race, but it somehow seems markedly less offensive than racial jokes, depending on how it’s delivered.

    Fair enough, and I totally get your point, but it’s also worth pointing out that certain nationalities are inextricably entwined with certain races. India, for example, doesn’t have an official immigration policy at all, and most of its immigrants (as opposed to expatriates who live there on long-term visas) are racially extremely similar to “original” Indians. (Quotes to accommodate the cavernous depth of my contempt for people who make arguments-from-ancestry about being “true” Indians.) Making a joke about Indians thus attacks a race population, and can be rounded up to racist in a way that, say, criticising the UK or Holland couldn’t. I think similar arguments could be made to regard as racist jokes which centre on Japan (which is extremely racially homogeneous), China, several African countries with low/nearly nonexistent non-black populations, etc.

  24. June 11, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    I don’t know…a big chunk of the racist jokes I’ve read and seen (those photos with huge captions on the photos) are about POC posted from POC POC.

    Azalea, I would argue that the joke you posted is brilliantly subversive rather than racist? I defer to your judgment on this as a WOC, but it read more as pointed criticism of the dominant culture to me.

    Unless of course it’s a “lookit those black people playing the race card haha” joke, in which case ugh. -_- I’m really unsure what to make of this joke….

  25. Donna L
    June 11, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Since Obama was elected, I see him referred to officially as “Mr. Obama” all the time. Was Bush just being overly-entitled, or are reporters being disrespectful, intentionally or not?

    If you write an article about a President, it’s entirely proper and respectful to say “President Smith” as the first reference, and Mr. or Ms. Smith thereafter.

    It’s in directly addressing the President that it’s considered disrespectful to say something like “Mr. Obama.” You’re supposed to say “Mr. President,” or “President Obama.”

    Just like you wouldn’t personally address Hillary Clinton as “Ms. Clinton” or “Mrs. Clinton”; she’s “Madame Secretary” or Secretary Clinton.

    (I used to read a lot of etiquette books as a child.)

  26. June 11, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Also, as a woman who is obviously quite offended at sexism, when someone who I know not to be a sexist tells a sexist joke, I will probably think it’s funny and laugh without feeling bad. But it has to be a good joke, like what Alexandra said at #18.

    Oh, I should add that I think that whether or not a so-called racist, sexist, whatever joke is funny or not is usually dependent on whether or not the audience is supposed to believe the punchline of the joke, or laugh because it’s so ridiculous.

  27. Brennan
    June 11, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    @Chiara,
    Yes, dead baby jokes are a staple of adolescent humor here. Do yourself a favor and *don’t* google any; they rely solely on shock factor and I have yet to hear one that’s actually funny.

    @Wirbelwind,
    No. Looking up racist jokes on the internet is not a morally-neutral decision. They play off of people’s racism while at the same time cementing racist stereotypes in people’s minds. They’re not good for you (general “you,” not making accusations) and by reading them you are giving someone license to keep writing them, whether you share with all your Facebook friends or just have a private chuckle. Plus, the internet is about as public as you can get, so odds are very good that people belonging to the ridiculed race will see it and be offended/hurt/triggered. But, people keep making the jokes because the offended parties aren’t physically present to give the kind of negative feedback that would stop it. Yes, people can be hurt and offended by funny jokes, too. One person’s “right” to entertainment does not supercede another person’s right to be fully recognized as a human being.

  28. EG
    June 11, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Isn’t it normal to at least read jokes on the Internet ? And yes, also about nationalities and racist ? As long as they are funny and somebody reads them only to themselves I don’t think there’s any problem.

    Maybe I’m just shockingly abnormal, but no, despite the copious amounts of time I’ve spent on the internet, I’ve never wasted any of it reading racist jokes. And whether or not it’s “normal,” it seems like a reasonably good index of free-floating racist feeling to me.

    • June 11, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      Isn’t it normal to at least read jokes on the Internet ? And yes, also about nationalities and racist ? As long as they are funny and somebody reads them only to themselves I don’t think there’s any problem.

      I think there’s a problem if you’re hunting around for racist jokes.

      And honestly, the only time I’ve come across racist jokes on “the internet” is when some fool posts them on Facebook, or a relative forwards me an email chain. I’ve pretty successfully defriended the racists, and requested that relatives not send me racist emails.

      And there actually is a problem even if you’re only reading the jokes to yourself for laffs and not subjecting anyone else to your “humor.” The problem is YOU being racist. Because unless you live your entire life on the internet, you are actually going to have to interact with people in the real world. And if you find racist humor funny, you are probably not going to be super awesome to people who don’t share your own racial background. Which has real impacts.

  29. June 11, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Unless of course it’s a “lookit those black people playing the race card haha” joke, in which case ugh. -_- I’m really unsure what to make of this joke….

    You know, I can imagine someone making that joke that way although I still find it ambiguous on its own. Just goes to show that humour is a weapon that knows no loyalty – it depends a hell of a lot on who’s saying what to whom, when, and where.

  30. koach
    June 11, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I can’t believe we’re discussing how funny racist jokes can be or the situations in which they can be funny.

    If a joke perpetuates stereotypes of and harmful attitudes toward disadvantaged groups, it’s not funny and it’s offensive. If a joke challenges these stereotypes and harmful attitudes, it’s a clever rebuttal to the dominant social paradigm.

  31. June 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    I can’t believe we’re discussing how funny racist jokes can be or the situations in which they can be funny.

    Uhm, I’m not sure if this was meant to apply to any of my comments, but for the record I don’t think there’s any debate to be made about situations in which racist jokes (jokes in which the humour is contingent on the acceptance and promotion of racist beliefs) are funny or appropriate. Those situations don’t exist. I did observe that what even appears *not* to be a racist joke on the surface could still have an entirely different message conveyed depending on who is telling it and why, though.

  32. June 11, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    I mean, you could argue that it’s still offensive to make fun of a whole country rather than a whole race, but it somehow seems markedly less offensive than racial jokes, depending on how it’s delivered.

    I suppose so, but how many times have you been asked about your igloo?

    kidding, kidding. In all seriousness though, as Macavity Kitsune pointed out, nationality and race can be intertwined, and even when race doesn’t play into it, nationality jokes can be used to mock and degrade a group of people based sheerly on geographical area and culture – ie, “You might be a redneck if.. ” or as is more common up here, the vast number of ‘Newfie’ (resident of Newfoundland) jokes that abound.

  33. yes
    June 12, 2012 at 5:45 am

    @andie Or, for example, trotting out tropes about rural poor being racist bestiality enthusiasts…

  34. rhian
    June 12, 2012 at 8:35 am

    The most important thing is always to tell jokes that you are certain your companions will actually find funny.

    Really? That’s the most important thing? Tell funny racist jokes only to racists? Not treat other people with respect, avoid being a flagrant racist, learn to confront your own prejudices… Really?

    I don’t understand why there is such a defense of racist jokes. You can think they’re funny, and you can read them on your own in secret, but no one’s going to pat you on the head and tell you you’re not racist for it.

    I don’t sit down in front of google and think “I feel like reading some jokes,” let alone “I feel like reading some racist jokes,” so this whole situation is just unfathomable to me.

  35. June 12, 2012 at 9:06 am

    I don’t understand why there is such a defense of racist jokes. You can think they’re funny, and you can read them on your own in secret, but no one’s going to pat you on the head and tell you you’re not racist for it.

    Sadly, a lot of people think that the right to a cheap laugh trumps basic human decency and if we aren’t allowed to make racist, sexist and homophobic jokes then all the laughter in the world will DIE and NO ONE WILL EVER LAUGH AGAIN.

  36. Libby Goodheart
    June 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Ugh. I see this article and a lot of what I’ve been reading lately as a pre-rationalization for an Obama defeat. Are we really at that point? I know things aren’t looking as great as I would like right now, but still.

  37. Anonymous
    June 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Make it into a graph or give us the raw data or something. Why even bother writing about it if you won’t include the statistics, other than one carefully selected example? I want to see how strong the correlation is.

  38. Delilah
    June 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    This sort of agenda-driven study, with its pre-ordained conclusions, isn’t science or anything close to it. The raw data is garbage as we have no idea who is making the Google searches or their purpose. They might all well be Ph.D candidates doing studies on racism. Or liberals searching for racist comments by politicians. The study tells us nothing worth discussing, much less respecting.

  39. Azalea
    June 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Azalea, I don’t know if you want to answer this and I won’t press if you don’t want to, but I’m really stumped on how that example is a racist joke. I would have guessed that it’s a joke about white cops’ racism against black people by extending the “driving while black” phenomenon to an even more absurd situation, but not about making fun of or undermining black people themselves, which is how I would define a racist joke (e.g., the photoshop of the White House to have a watermelon patch) as opposed to a joke about racism that does not perpetuate racism but lampoons it.

    The thing is, the photo contains an actual child with an actual white person in a police costume. In D.C. there HAVE been little black boys killed or harassed by police officers.

    There is a joke about the President giving a press conference on Osama Bin Laden’s death and he speaks like a Sursum Cordas/Barry Farms/Trinidad/Edgewood community living DC native, ie with “ebonics” and broken english and saying shit like curry where most people would say carry. I wont lie, I laughed I was offended but I laughed. Someone I know who is black actually heard about it and googled it to find it then fwd it to me. That happens ALL.THE.TIME.

    BUT I am not black and therefore may seriously be misunderstanding this joke you described and the way in which it is racist. Any clarification that could be offered would be greatly appreciated as clearly I’ve hit the limits of my own comprehension.

    It’s not supposed to be funny, its supposed to be a “wake up” call. But it’s funny and offensive and it gets pass along and will certainly make its way far from the black community and into places where actual racists can view it and pass it along. My point in bringing it up was that the number you get from these google searches are rigged.

    Oh and another racist joke: how many police officers does it take to change a light bulb, answer: none, they all will just beat the room for being black.

    THAT has been googled and passed around by black people who laughed at it and then it was no longer funny when a facebook page reposted ( a page run by white teens).

  40. Azalea
    June 12, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Azalea, I would argue that the joke you posted is brilliantly subversive rather than racist? I defer to your judgment on this as a WOC, but it read more as pointed criticism of the dominant culture to me.

    I have two little boys. They are light in complexion but very obviously will be seen as black boys despite their heritage of being multi-racial but that’s fine, most of the bi or multiracial people I know will identify as the race they are most likely to be perceived as. Although I highly doubt they will get pulled over on their toy cars the idea that even small young black boys risk being harrassed for the “black tax” or “living while black” is a reality. I look at that and think “racism” many of the women I know saw it as a racist joke but laughed because it was offensive and funny. That photo has a lot of different captions but that is the only one I would post here because the rest get far..far more offensive.

  41. June 12, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    I look at that and think “racism” many of the women I know saw it as a racist joke but laughed because it was offensive and funny.

    *nodnod* Makes sense to me, Azalea. My own reaction was more along the lines of “Well played, also BURN”, but as I said, I defer to you here.

    And yeah, the racism against even very young black boys never fails to appall me about US society. God, that 13yo kid who was shot in DC (I think it was DC?) recently… I almost cried, reading the headline.

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