Uh-Obama: Racism, White Voters and the Myth of Color-Blindness

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write, at least not as soon as I am now compelled to write it: It may well be the case that the United States is on its way to electing a person of color as President. Make no mistake, I realize the way that any number of factors, racism prominently among them, could derail such a thing from coming to fruition. Indeed, results from the Ohio Democratic primary suggest that an awful lot of white folks, especially rural and working-class whites, are still mightily uncomfortable with voting for such a candidate, at least partly because of race: One-fifth of voters in the state said race was important to their decision, and roughly six in ten of these voted for Hillary Clinton, which totals would then represent her approximate margin of victory over Barack Obama.

But having said all that–and I think anyone who is being honest would have to acknowledge this as factual–we are far closer to the election of a person of color in a Presidential race than probably any of us expected. Obama’s meteoric rise, from community organizer, to law professor, to Illinois state senator, to the U.S. Senate, and now, possibly, the highest office in the land, is something that could have been foreseen by few if any just a few years ago. Obama’s undeniable charisma, savvy political instincts, passion for his work, and ability to connect with young voters (and not a few older ones as well) is the kind of thing you just don’t see all that often. The fact that as a black man (or, as some may prefer, a man of biracial background) he has been able to catapult to the position in which he now finds himself makes the accomplishment even more significant. It does indeed mean something.

But this is where things become considerably more complicated; the point at which one is forced to determine what, exactly, his success means (and doesn’t mean) when it comes to the state of race, race relations, and racism in the United States. And it is at this point that so-called mainstream commentary has, once again, dropped the ball.

On the one hand, many a voice has suggested that Obama’s success signifies something akin to the end of racism in the U.S., if not entirely, then surely as a potent political or social force. After all, if a black man actually stands a better-than-decent shot at becoming President, then how much of a barrier could racism really be? But of course, the success of individual persons of color, while it certainly suggests that overt bigotry has diminished substantially, hardly speaks to the larger social reality faced by millions of others: a subject to which we will return. Just as sexism no doubt remained an issue in Pakistan, even after Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister in the 1980s and again in the 90s (or in India or Israel after both nations had female Premiers, or in Great Britain after the election of Margaret Thatcher), so too can racism exist in abundance, in spite of the electoral success of one person of color, even one who could be elevated to the highest office in the world’s most powerful nation.

More importantly, to the extent Obama’s success has been largely contingent on his studious avoidance of the issue of race–such that he rarely ever mentions discrimination and certainly not in front of white audiences–one has to wonder just how seriously we should take the notion that racism is a thing of the past, at least as supposedly evidenced by his ability to attract white votes? To the extent those whites are rewarding him in large measure for not talking about race, and to the extent they would abandon him in droves were he to begin talking much about racism–for he would be seen at that point as playing the race card, or appealing to “special interests” and suffer the consequences–we should view Obama’s success, given what has been required to make it possible, as confirmation of the ongoing salience of race in American life. Were race really something we had moved beyond, whites would be open to hearing a candidate share factual information about housing discrimination, racial profiling, or race-based inequities in health care. But we don’t want to be reminded of those things. We prefer to ignore them, and many are glad that Obama has downplayed them too, whether by choice, or necessity.

Erasing Race and Making White Folks Happy

The extent to which Obama’s white support has been directly related to his downplaying of race issues simply cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the kinds of things many of these supporters openly admit, possessing no sense of apparent irony or misgiving. So, consider the chant offered by his supporters at a recent rally–and frankly, a chant in which whites appeared to be joining with far greater enthusiasm than folks of color–to the effect that “Race Doesn’t Matter, Race Doesn’t Matter,” a concept so utterly absurd, given the way in which race most certainly still matters to the opportunity structure in this country, that one has to almost wretch at the repeated offering of it. Or consider the statements of support put forth by Obama supporters in a November 2007 Wall Street Journal article, to the effect that Obama makes whites “feel good” about ourselves (presumably by not bothering us with all that race talk), and that Obama, by virtue of his race-averse approach has “emancipated” whites to finally vote for a black candidate (because goodness knows we were previously chained and enslaved to a position of rejectionism). Worst of all, consider the words of one white Obama supporter, an ardent political blogger in Nashville, to the effect that what he likes about the Illinois Senator is that he “doesn’t come with the baggage of the civil rights movement.” Let it suffice to say that when the civil rights movement–one of the greatest struggles for human liberation in the history of our collective species–can be unashamedly equated with Samsonite, with luggage, with something one should avoid as though it were radioactive (and this coming from a self-described liberal), we are at a very dangerous place as a nation, all celebrations of Obama’s cross-racial appeal notwithstanding.

What does it say about the nation’s political culture–and what does it suggest about the extent to which we have moved “beyond race”–that candidate Obama, though he surely knows it, has been unable to mention the fact that 2006 saw the largest number of race-based housing discrimination complaints on record, and according to government and private studies, there are between two and three million cases of housing discrimination each year against people of color?

What does it say that he has failed to note with any regularity that according to over a hundred studies, health disparities between whites and blacks are due not merely to health care costs and economic differences between the two groups (a subject he does address) but also due to the provision of discriminatory care by providers, even to blacks with upper incomes, and black experiences with racism itself, which are directly related to hypertension and other maladies?

What does it say that Obama apparently can’t bring himself to mention, for fear of likely white backlash, that whites are over seventy percent of drug users, but only about ten percent of persons incarcerated for a drug possession offense, while blacks and Latinos combined are about twenty-five percent of users, but comprise roughly ninety percent of persons locked up for a possession offense?

Why no mention of the massive national study by legal scholars Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen, which found that at least a third of all businesses in the nation engage in substantial discrimination against people of color–hiring such folks at rates that are well below their availability in the local and qualified labor pool, and well below the rates at which they are to be found in non-discriminating companies in the same locales and industries? Indeed, according to the Blumrosen study, at least 1.3 million qualified people of color will face job discrimination in a given year. Or what of the study of temporary agencies in California, which found that white women who are less qualified than their black counterparts, are still three times more likely to be favored in a job search? And what are the odds that he’ll be likely to mention, to any significant degree, the recent EEOC report, which notes that in 2007 there was a twelve percent jump in race-based discrimination complaints in the workplace relative to the previous year (almost all of which were filed by persons of color): bringing the number of such complaints to their highest level since 1994?

As Obama talks about change and making the “American Dream” real for all, why is he unable to mention the fact–let alone propose specific remedies for it–that thanks to a history of unequal access to property and the inability to accumulate assets on par with whites, young black couples with college degrees and good incomes still start out at a significant disadvantage (around $20,000) relative to their white counterparts? In fact, the wealth gap between whites and blacks–with the average white family now having about eleven times the net worth of the average black family–continues to grow, even as income gaps for similarly educated families with similar background characteristics have shrunk.

And why such muted discussion about the way that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, government at all levels and across party lines has engaged in ethnic cleansing in New Orleans, failing to provide rental assistance to the mostly black tenant base for over a year, plotting to tear down 5000 perfectly usable units of public housing, failing to restart the city’s public health care infrastructure, and even ordering the Red Cross not to provide relief in the first few days after the city flooded in September 2005, so as to force evacuation and empty out the city? While Obama has spoken much about the failures of the Bush Administration during Katrina, openly discussing the deliberate acts of cruelty that go well beyond incompetence, and which amount to the forced depopulation of New Orleans-area blacks, has been something about which he cannot speak for fear of prompting a backlash from whites, most of whom, according to polls, don’t think the events of Katrina have any lessons at all to teach us about race in America.

Surely, that Obama is constrained in his ability to focus any real attention on these matters, suggests that whatever his success may say about America and race, one thing it utterly fails to say is that we have conquered the racial demons that have so long bedeviled us. And to the extent he must remain relatively silent about these issues, lest he find his political ascent headed in a decidedly different direction, it is true, however ironic, that his success actually confirms the salience of white power. If, in order to be elected, a man of color has to pander to white folks, in ways that no white politician would ever have to do to people who were black or brown, then white privilege and white power remain operative realities. Obama’s ascent to the Presidency, if it happens, will happen only because he managed to convince enough whites that he was different, and not really black, in the way too many whites continue to think of black people, which according to every opinion survey, is not too positively.

Transcending Blackness, Reinforcing White Racism: The Trouble With Exceptions

Obama’s rise has owed almost everything to his ability–and this, again, coming from people who support him and are willing to speak candidly–to “transcend” race, which is really a way of saying, his ability to carve out an exception for himself in the minds of whites. But this notion of Obama “transcending race” (by which we really mean transcending his blackness) is a patently offensive and even racist notion in that it serves to reinforce generally negative feelings about blacks as a whole; feelings that the presence of exceptions cannot cancel out, and which they can even serve to reinforce. To the extent Obama has become the Cliff Huxtable of politics–a black man with whom millions of whites can identity and to whom they can relate–he has leapt one hurdle, only to watch his white co-countrymen and women erect a still higher one in the path of the black masses. If whites view Obama as having transcended his blackness, and if this is why we like him so much, we are saying, in effect, that the millions of blacks who haven’t transcended theirs will remain a problem. To praise the transcending of blackness, after all, is to imply that blackness is something negative, something from which one who might otherwise qualify for membership ought to seek escape, and quickly.

Note, never has a white politician been confronted with questions about his or her ability to transcend race, or specifically, their whiteness. And this is true, even as many white politicians continue to pull almost all of their support from whites, and have almost no luck at convincing people of color to vote for them. In the Democratic primaries this year, Obama has regularly received about half the white vote, while Hillary Clinton has managed to pull down only about one-quarter of the black vote, yet the question has always been whether he could transcend race. The only rational conclusion to which this points is, again, that it is not race per se that needs to be overcome, but blackness. Whiteness is not seen as negative, as something to be conquered or transcended. Indeed, whereas blacks are being asked to rise above their racial identity, for whites, the burden is exactly the opposite: the worst thing for a white person is to fail to live up to the ostensibly high standards set by whiteness; it is to be considered white trash, which is to say, to be viewed as someone who has let down whiteness and fallen short of its pinnacle. For blacks, the worst thing it seems (at least in the minds of whites) is to be seen as black, which is no doubt why so many whites think it’s a compliment to say things to black folks like, “I don’t even think of you as black,” not realizing that the subtext of such a comment is that it’s a damned good thing they don’t, for if they did, the person so thought of would be up the proverbial creek for sure.

In what must prove among the greatest ironies of all time, for Barack Obama to become President, which he well may accomplish, he will have to succeed in convincing a lot of racist white people to vote for him. Without the support of racists he simply can’t win. While this may seem counterintuitive–that is, after all, what makes it ironic–it is really inarguable. After all, according to many an opinion survey in the past decade, large numbers of whites (often as high as one-half to three-quarters) harbor at least one negative and racist stereotype about African Americans, whether regarding their intelligence, law-abidingness, work ethic, or value systems. Without the votes of at least some of those whites (and keep in mind, that’s how many whites are willing to admit to racist beliefs, which is likely far fewer than actually hold them), Obama’s candidacy would be sunk. So long as whites can vote for a black man only to the extent that he doesn’t remind them of other black people, it is fair to say that white people remain mired in a racism quite profound. To the extent we view the larger black community in terms far more hostile than those reserved for Obama, Oprah, Tiger, Colin, Condoleezza, Denzel and Bill (meaning Cosby, not Clinton, whose blackness is believed to be authentic only by himself nowadays), whites have proven how creative we can be, and how resourceful, when it comes to the maintenance of racial inequality.

By granting exemptions from blackness, even to those black folks who did not ask for such exemptions (and nothing I have said here should be taken as a critique of Obama himself by the way, for whom I did indeed vote last month), we have taken racism to an entirely new and disturbing level, one that bypasses the old and all-encompassing hostilities of the past, and replaces them with a new, seemingly ecumenical acceptance in the present. But make no mistake, it is an ecumenism that depends upon our being made to feel good, and on our ability to glom onto folks of color who won’t challenge our denial let alone our privileges, even if they might like to.

In short, the success of Barack Obama has proven, perhaps more so than any other single thing could, just how powerful race remains in America. His success, far from disproving white power and privilege, confirms it with a vengeance.

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