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Clarence Page / Politics

Googling Anti-Obama Racism

On the night of Barack Obama's presidential election victory, we Americans seemed to shed our troubled legacy of racism. Or did we?

Obama's victory did offer at least one gift to conservatives. It gave them a new excuse to tell black Americans to stop complaining about white racism.

In one of the more thoughtful analyses at the time, social scientists Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "The conventional wisdom among voting-rights advocates and political scientists has been that whites will not vote for black candidates in significant numbers … (b)ut the myth of racist white voters was destroyed by this year's presidential election."

Or was it? The ferocious rise of "birthers" (who cling to the myth that Obama wasn't really born in Hawaii), radical tea party conservatives and the most gridlocked Congress in more than a century causes many to wonder: Could ill feelings about his race have prevented Obama from receiving even more white votes?

And, more currently, could racism re-emerge as a factor significant enough to sink his re-election bid this November in what already is shaping up to be a much tighter race?

Attempts to measure racism are persistently flummoxed ironically by the success of the civil rights movement in driving blatant racism underground. We tend to lie about our own racism, not only to pollsters but also to ourselves, even if we have to bend and reshape our definition of the R-word to do it.

Yet, undaunted by this challenge, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard, has devised for our consideration an alternative index of racism in America based not on polling but on our Google searches and voting patterns.

Using Google Insights, which tells researchers how often words are searched in different parts of the United States, he tries to quantify racial prejudice in different parts of the country based solely on how often certain racially charged words — "nigger," for example, but not "nigga," which tends to pop up in rap lyrics — are used on Google.

He used data from 2004 to 2007 to measure regional tastes and attitudes before they were directly influenced by feelings toward Obama. After 2008, the author noted, "Obama" became "a prevalent term in racially charged searches."

Then he predicted how many votes Obama should have received based on how many votes 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry received and how much of a vote gain was experienced by congressional Democratic candidates in 2008.

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