On Tuesday night, the point was driven home when Obama lost 36 counties in the state’s Democratic primary elections.
His opponent was John Wolfe, an unknown lawyer from Tennessee who is on the ballot in Texas. Wolfe campaigned in Arkansas and received a lot of free media from local newspapers. He said he made a few thousand calls to Arkansans. Wolfe is far from a house-hold name, and few voters likely knew his beliefs on issues.
But he wasn’t Obama.
Obama lost Bill Clinton’s home state to Senator John McCain by 20 points in 2008 – more than in any other state. The constant line here is that people here don’t like Obama’s policies. It’s also often repeated that he doesn’t understand the conservative values of Arkansans. Even in 2008, many voters bemoaned the fact that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton – not that she was so beloved in Arkansas either.
Arkansas Democratic Governor Mike Beebe has said that Obama will likely not win the state. He, too, is lukewarm, saying he will “probably” vote for Obama. (He voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008.) In 2006, when Beebe was first running for governor, Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, campaigned in Arkansas for Beebe. Hundreds of Democrats turned out for his visit. He was new on the political scene and not yet polarizing or president.
But it was the last time Obama visited Arkansas.
Many pundits and academics call Wolfe’s win a protest vote. But it’s far deeper than that. And regardless of how people want to tip-toe around it, racism here in my home state works against Obama.
It’s a state that has long suffered with its racial history and right place in the civil rights movement. In 1957, the city was thrust into national headlines when nine black students were denied entry to Little Rock Central High School. Eventually, the National Guard was called out to allow the students access. Protests erupted. The city’s public schools closed the next year because of integration. These events loomed over Little Rock for decades, and even now occasionally, and often prevented its growth as a major Southern city.
Arkansas has never elected an African-American to the governorship, a state constitutional office or Congress. In 2013, the state will finally have its first black speaker of the house in the legislature.
In the impoverished Delta area, mostly black students attend public schools. White students attend private schools. No one addresses this issue. It’s just the way it has been done for years. Funeral homes are still segregated in large areas of the South. Blacks are buried by black-owned funeral homes, whites by white-owned ones.
The Ku Klux Klan’s The Knights Party calls Harrison, Ark., home. On Labor Day weekend, the National Klan Congress will hold a leadership conference in Harrison.
People will deny it, but racism runs deep in Arkansas.
In 2008, white people I have known my entire life confessed to me that they would not vote for Obama because of his race. They won’t go on record. They will say otherwise in public. But in a comfortable environment over iced tea when they forget I’m a reporter, they will say this in rural Arkansas – and much of this state would be considered the country.
If I look perplexed, they will say he's not "a Southern black" so therefore, he doesn’t understand. “Understand what” is never made clear – his place in a confused, archaic society, perhaps?
They will crack racist jokes. They will insist Obama is a Muslim, a socialist and a Nazi. These are not Republicans necessarily. In fact, many of these people have voted Democratic their entire lives.
Of course, they won’t be quoted. No one wants to look or sound racist in 21st century America because it’s not politically correct. That’s why pinpointing racism against Obama in the South is so hard to do for reporters. A old Dixie mentality exists that is ingrained from a very young age: White people are superior to blacks. And no matter how much you talk about equality, a lot of people just don’t quite get it. Even in 2012. And they never will.
“It is not acceptable for persons to state overt racism,” says Dr. Pearl K. Dowe, an assistant political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “People are more sophisticated and have developed nuanced ways to express their racial animus. Many persons may harbor symbolic racism that they are not aware of.”
She tells me that symbolic racism “manifests itself in policy choices, coded language, or belief in stereotypes.
“One of these stereotypes is that African Americans cannot provide effective leadership,” she says.
The racism against Obama in Arkansas is ironic, and startling, considering how its citizenry loved calling Bill Clinton the “first black president.” We can love a white president who talks about empowering black people. The ultimate manifestation of that empowerment, though – a black president – may be a little too real.
Suzi Parker, a sixth-generation Arkansan, is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker