US politics contains old racism in new forms
I read my colleague Tyler McCarthy's column on the importance of Barack Obama's race with great interest yesterday morning. Having planned for today to write a column on this same topic, I thought it fitting to pursue my own lines of analysis but nonetheless respond in some way to his very persuasive argument.
The voting-age population of the state of Mississippi is about 35 percent black. By a simple mathematical calculation it becomes clear that Obama needs to win only about 25 percent of the white vote, assuming that blacks go to the polls at a rate approximating their overall proportion of the voting-age population, to take Mississippi's six electoral votes. But in 2008, exit polls revealed that an incredible 88 percent of the white electorate of Mississippi voted for John McCain, despite an even more monolithic vote of blacks for Obama (98 percent). Across the country, despite attracting the support of millions more young people, women, ethnic and racial minorities and first-time voters than John Kerry mobilized in 2004, Obama made miniscule electoral gains among white voters, losing the largest major demographic category surveyed in exit polls by a 12-point margin to John McCain.
I would not dare suggest that America's white voters participate in elections in the same way in which South Africa's white population does - that is, by voting almost unanimously for a predominantly white party opposed to the black liberationist African National Congress, effectively equating a political poll with a racial census. Barack Obama, after all, would not have won the states of Vermont and Michigan without a substantial basis of support among whites there. But if this upcoming election were to be decided by the nation's white voters, it would unquestionably result in a Romney landslide. Current polls indicate that the vote for Obama among this demographic would perhaps only reach 35 percent. Obama would lose every electoral vote, with the possible exception of a few from New England. And we would be at a loss to explain why so many states, especially those in the Deep South, supported Romney by such incredible margins if we could not point to enduring racial fears and hatreds harbored by so many millions of Americans.
If America has advanced toward racial tolerance in the 50 years following the black Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, I am only willing to grant that openly racist sentiments and appeals are no longer permissible by the norms of public or private discourse. The Orval Faubuses and George Wallaces of decades past belong to an extinct species of political figures that thrived on whipping up racial tensions whenever they gave a speech. Discrimination and civil turmoil of the '60s may have affected a change of heart among Americans, but it did not change their minds. The racism of much of contemporary America may be a colorblind racism that denigrates racial difference by attempting to ignore it, but it is racism nonetheless.
But racial perception of President Obama is hardly colorblind. The purpose of calling Obama a socialist or a communist is not to make a comment on his political economy, for it represents laughably excessive hyperbole. Nor is there any legitimate reason to call him a Muslim, a Kenyan, an Indonesian or to doubt the veracity of his birth certificate. All of these appeals aim to differentiate him, to mark him with the stigma of racial, cultural, ideological and national difference, to inculcate within the minds of American whites a sense of unease and a fear of his difference. It is not enough that Obama's mother was, in fact, a white woman from America's agricultural heartland, or that Obama defies simplistic racial categorization. Because of the racial taint of our history and culture, we can only see in him that which is sinister, scheming, foreign and black.
I deeply appreciate Tyler McCarthy's point that "Democratic and Republican critics alike [must be congratulated] for making Barack Obama stand on merit as a president." This theme of personal merit deserves to structure our scrutiny of any politician, white or black or otherwise. Surely it is noble in the end, moreover, to see beyond our President's race to the nature of his accomplishments and his personal character. But I am admittedly pessimistic on this front. I don't think that we can "see beyond" in this sense. Either we see in vivid, frightening, morally poisonous colors, or we blind ourselves to them.
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