America has had a black president.
Is the country ready for a black president who is also a woman?
Speculation about the candidacy of Oprah Winfrey makes clear that some voters think so. Granted, Winfrey says she won’t run, but friends, commentators and many in the Twitterverse are pushing for her to reconsider.
As a scholar of race and politics, I’m curious about whether Oprah will change her mind about running – and even more curious about whether she could win.
A paper I recently published with Harwood McClerking and Ray Block tried to shed light on this question by examining Oprah’s first major foray into politics — her endorsement of Democratic candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. Specifically, we wanted to know how the endorsement altered the public’s perception of her, as a way of understanding if people like the idea of a “political Oprah”.
First, it helps to understand just how popular Oprah was leading up to the 2008 election. From 2002 to 2006, Winfrey’s daytime talk show pulled in an estimated 7 million viewers every day. Winfrey also had racial crossover appeal, maintaining an audience that was predominately female, white and over the age of 55.
During this phase of her career, Oprah avoided politics, a strategy that may have helped her “transcend her race,” to borrow a phrase from political scientists Donald Kinder and Corrine McConnaughy.
For example, in an interview with the Jacksonville Daily News in 1986, Oprah described her high school experience: “Everyone went through the black-power phase … (but) I knew I was not a dashiki kind of girl.”
Talking to People Weekly a year later, Oprah said that during college at Tennessee State, a historically black college, she “refused to conform to the militant thinking of the time”.
“People feel you have to lead a civil rights movement every day of your life, that you have to be a spokeswoman and represent the race,” Oprah said. “Blackness is something I just am.”
Writing in 1994, media scholar Janice Peck asserted that Winfrey served “as a comforting, nonthreatening bridge between black and white culture.” She goes on to say that Winfrey minimized her race through “public rejection of black political activism and the Civil Rights Movement.”
This notion of Winfrey’s racial transcendence was tested in May 2007 with her explicit endorsement of Obama, which made her racial identity and political views salient to the American people. This connection was not lost on viewers, some of whom said she was trying to “sway her mass following.”
Politics scholar Costas Panagopoulos predicted that the endorsement would cause Winfrey’s popularity to suffer. It didn’t help that Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama alienated her from white women – the largest segment of her audience – who believed that, as a woman, she should have backed Hillary Clinton.
Oprah isn’t the first black woman to struggle with two minority identities.
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