Monday, May 26, 2008

Racial Resentment and the Making of the President, 2008


As I've noted many times, campaign '08's doing more for race relations than any other event in the last couple of decades. Where Bill Clinton wanted to have a "national conversation on race," his wife's campaign - targeting voters in Appalachia or in reflecting on the presidential politics of political assassinations - is lightyears ahead in terms of opening up the country's scars from earlier eras of slavery and Jim Crow.

Survey data aren't going to be helpful. Whereas the Washington Post reported positively on race and polling trends last year, "
Race, Gender Less Relevant in '08," events on the ground and in the media indicate that long periods of racial accommodation, healing, and equal opportunity can be blown apart by crass political opportunism and race-baiting by all parties.

What's so interesting, of course, is that most of the patterns of racial reaction are seen in the Democratic Party ranks. While counterintuitive, these trends are the natural end result of a political party movement built on increasing power by manipulating racial identity, grievance, and guilt. Why would such racial demonization of political enemies abate when the fighting's among candidates within the party's own presumed "big tent"?

So it's interesting to see the angst of racial recrimination in this week's cover story at Newsweek, "A Memo to Senator Obama":

Race is a difficult subject to talk and write about. Although the blogosphere is rarely shy, mainstream journalists often tread lightly for fear of giving offense or indulging in stereotypes. Political candidates sometimes slyly play the race card, but rarely overtly. Not eager to call attention to race as an issue, the Obama campaign plays it down as a factor in the election. But if an Obama adviser were writing an honest memo to the candidate, here's how it might read:

The good news is that you have all but won the nomination. The bad news, if we are willing to face reality, is that the country—some parts of it, anyway—may not be ready to elect a black president of the United States. It is hard to get a precise fix on the problem. Voters generally deny to pollsters that race is a factor in casting their votes, but when they step into the privacy of the polling booth, their prejudices can sometimes emerge. Probably only a tiny fraction of voters are outright racist. But race is not irrelevant to many others, black or white; exit polls vary greatly by state, but show that 10 to 30 percent of primary voters considered race as they voted (if white, those voters broke overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton; if African-American, they voted for you).

NEWSWEEK pollsters recently created a "Racial Resentment Index" to measure the impact of race on the 2008 election. White voters were asked a series of 10 questions about a variety of race-related topics, including racial preferences in hiring, interracial marriage—and what they have "in common" with African-Americans. About a third of these voters scored "high" on this index; 29 percent of all white Democrats did. Overwhelmingly, these Democrats are the ones most likely to defect to John McCain in the fall. (Among "High RR" white Democratic voters, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Clinton leads McCain by 77 percent to 18 percent, while you win by only 51 percent to 33 percent.) Many Democratic voters in West Virginia interviewed by a NEWSWEEK reporter on primary night, May 13, did not hide their animus toward you as a kind of exotic alien. Menina Parsons, 45, said she will not vote for Obama in the general election because "I don't think he's real. I don't think he's American."

Some commentators have said that your problem is not with race—it's with geography. The Daily Kos Web site recently posted a map that makes the point: the majority of counties in which more than 65 percent of whites voted for Clinton closely track Appalachia—the mountainous region running from New York into the Deep South, where voters tend to be somewhat less well-off and less well educated than in other parts of the country. These same commentators note that you have done well in other mostly white, rural states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon. That's all true, and it's important not to exaggerate the scale of the problem.

But Appalachia is a big place, encompassing 13 states: southwestern New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, West Virginia, western Maryland, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western North and South Carolina, and northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. You cannot afford to lose all those states and still win in November. Other pollsters have suggested that the race factor is at least noticeable in a much wider swath of rural America, where 60 million voters reside. One recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of rural voters in battleground states showed that you are trailing McCain by 9 points (and that Clinton runs even with him). Dee Davis, president of a Kentucky-based advocacy group called the Center for Rural Strategies, points out in a recent article on that in June 2004, John Kerry trailed George W. Bush by the same 9-point margin in the same rural battlegrounds.
Note this section from the article, which I think's more important than the racial composition of the candidate:

The Internet has been a sluice for lies and distortions about your religion and background. It is widely and falsely rumored that you are Muslim (in the NEWSWEEK Poll, 11 percent of voters believe you are); that you chose to be sworn in to the Senate using a Qur'an rather than a Bible, and that you refuse to place your hand over your heart for the singing of the national anthem because, you are imagined to have said, "the anthem conveys a warlike message." As a recent post on points out, there is a "Genealogy of Barack Hussein Obama" making the Web rounds, helpfully illustrated by pictures of your dark-complexioned relatives dressed in African garb. The message is not subtle: it says that Barack Obama is not a "real American."

You must confront this slur, with more force than you have shown so far. If you do not, you will be defined by your enemies and the Web, a dangerous combination. You movingly told your life story in a book that's become a best seller. And lately, you have wisely taken to often wearing an American-flag lapel pin. It would help to be seen venerating your white mother and grandparents as well as your black father. Your mother is a sympathetic figure, fighting to raise a child out of poverty. It is a good thing that this summer you are scheduled to go to the grave site of your grandfather, a World War II vet whose coffin was draped with the American flag when he died in 1992. Voters need to know that he, much more than your father who lived far away, was the man who raised you. Voters need to know that you are definitely not John Kerry, who was raised to wealth and privilege, an Ivy Leaguer educated, for a time, at a French boarding school.

The piece concludes by identifying Obama's biggest challenge: Making himself known to poor and working-class white Americans, making himself a candidate for all citizens, not just Ivy League or coastal elites, not just minorities who get lucrative affirmative-action set-asides, not just cultural snobs who think the American flag is coequal to the swastika.

From my own experience studying and teaching and living black politics, I can say that old-fashioned Jim Crow racial resentment is found in a small minority of the American population. It's still there, sure, and I've related personal stories to that effect, but these views are a tiny part of today's national identity.

In my view, to even ask if "Is America Ready for a Black President" only serves more to perpetuate racial divisions than eradicate them.

For Barack Obama, it's his character and questions of integrity, his divisive political and religious associations, and his far-left political agenda that are the greatest impediments to his accession to the White House.

We should repudiate crass racial appeals this election season, but pointing out Obama's political liabilities on cultural questions, or on his politicial radicalism, is not racist. Indeed, the GOP would be foolish not to take into consideration Democratic liabilities with traditional white (conservative) constituencies.

Photo Credit: Newsweek