Race and Class in the Democratic Primaries
Race matters a great deal in the
Race matters a great deal in the
The 2008 Democratic presidential race is an excellent case in point.
According to New York Times writer Kirk Johnson three days after the black Barack Obama’s triumph over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the heavily Caucasian Iowa Democratic Party presidential Caucus, “race didn’t matter” in the contest.
Johnson meant to express something obvious and indisputable – that Obama was not rendered un-electable (perhaps I should say un-Caucus-able) in
True enough. White racism did not kill Obama’s candidacy in white
But as an Edwards volunteer who split my campaign duties between my home and heavily academic Iowa City precinct and more rural and working class towns in eastern Iowa’s Muscatine County, I know very well that Johnson was wrong. So, on numerous levels, including voting behavior, were the thousands of college students and others who could be heard chanting “Race Doesn’t Matter” at Obama campaign rallies and victory speeches during mid and late January and February of 2008 .
GREAT WHITE “LIBERAL” HOPE
Race has mattered a great deal in the presidential primaries but it has done so in different and conflicting sorts of ways related to class. In my home precinct, for example, the “deeply conservative” (Larissa MacFarquhar) Obama’s skin color was frankly a big advantage. It helped make many of my neighborhood’s many “liberal” and relatively affluent whites excessively reluctant to take a hard and honest look at his strong corporate connections and imperial commitments. It encouraged many of them to exaggerate how “progressive” he was and in some cases even to identify criticism of the Obama phenomenon as crypto-racism. Along with the fact that many professional and academic people (being relatively privileged members of the coordinator class) are not especially progressive in the first place, Obama’s race helped them off to the possibility that there was “room to his left.” It was very difficult to tell them that, as the black liberal-left journalist Gary Younge observed, “Edwards [was] running a far more progressive campaign, stressing corporate greed and pledging a [more, P.S.] rapid exit from
Two days before the
In my precinct and across much of heavily liberal and academic
Along the way, Obama helped wrap establishment corporate-imperial politics in deceptive “rebel’s clothing.” He advanced the business and imperial agendas among voters who would have been more likely to inquire into his support of elite programs were he not technically black.
This is an unpleasant reality to consider, perhaps, but I saw it in a very direct and graphic way.
CLASS-DIFFERENTIATED PSYCHOLOGICAL RACE WAGES
Things were different in the more rural and blue-collar precincts of
In more working and rural places, Republican signage was more than occasionally visible and Obama support was considerably less apparent. The main opponent was Mrs. Clinton.
People here were reluctant to be explicit about race but it was clear that many of the less privileged white voters I met beyond the liberal middle-class island of Iowa City were less than comfortable with the idea of “that colored guy” (as one middle-aged white lady in a trailer park described Obama) in the White House.
I would like to think that their greater distance from Obama was about his corporate-friendly economic centrism. There was some of that, particularly when I spoke with union members. But not many of my white voter contacts in
The other thing was that Obama is black and the notion of electing him president worked against what the black Marxist W.E.B. DuBois once called the “psychological wage of racism – that false compensatory payment once usefully summarized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the satisfaction of …thinking you are somebody big because you are white” . Such “satisfaction” is much more commonly sought (subconsciously) by people at the bottom of
But this does not mean that
Obama is perfectly calibrated for that curious mixture of racial pseudo- benevolence and intra-Caucasian class arrogance.
Intra-Caucasian class difference (and “race wages” no doubt) came into play in heavily
College graduates opted for Obama 39 to 34 percent.
As George W. Bush’s former political advisor Karl Rove noted in the Wall Street Journal, “
Obama was less damaged by white class differences in
“THE I-LOVE-OBAMA-THUS-RACISM-NO-LONGER-EXISTS PHENOMENON”
The Obama fans’ “Race Doesn’t Matter” chant expresses childish naiveté and wishful thinking on numerous levels. As Marjorie Valbrun noted in the Washington Post seven days after Obama won the
“The recent images of college students, most of them white, chanting ‘Race doesn't matter’ at Barack Obama campaign rallies have been heartwarming. The young people have embraced this mantra and buoyed their candidate's vote tallies in the primaries with earnest and youthful idealism.”
“Admirable? Yes. Impressive? Absolutely. Moving? How could it not be? Racially transcendent? Not a chance.”
“...Call it the I-Love-Obama-thus-racism-no-longer-exists phenomenon. If only things were that simple.”
“Race matters in almost everything we do. It factors into where we...live, school our children and pray. It determines whom we hire -- or don't hire. It influences how we are viewed by police and treated by the criminal justice system. It grants some people access to better health care and denies others a high-quality public school education. Race mattered during Hurricane Katrina and during the O.J. Simpson trials. It mattered in
“Neither their collective energy nor a million continuous chants could make their mantra true. Their candidate is neither ‘post-racial’ nor ‘race neutral’ or ‘colorless.’ He has not transcended race. The matter of whether such a thing is even possible is a question for another day. He is just an extraordinary black man, but a black man nonetheless, who happens to be running for president. The young, white people who support him happen to love him regardless of his race, much as many black people love him because of it” .
I would only offer one correction: many of Obama’s disproportionately affluent white supporters have “loved” him at least partly because (not “regardless”) of his race.
RACIAL BLOC VOTING IN
Race mattered a great deal in determining voting behavior during the Democratic primaries following
As the campaign developed and
Among thirty primaries and caucuses for which exit polls are available and Obama was on the ballot, the Tribune found,
Obama’s core voting base consisted mainly of blacks (who supported him overwhelmingly) and of more educated, affluent, urban and “racially tolerant” whites – the (1980s black Chicago Mayor) “Harold Washington coalition” on a national scale.
It was no accident, then, that Obama tended to dominate elections using the caucus system (examples included Washington, Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, and Minnesota), for more affluent and activist voters enjoy an “outsized voice” in caucuses as opposed to primaries .
The racially polarized voting patterns that emerged in the Democratic primaries of March 2008 were quite pronounced. In the
In this week’s
Obama’s problems with white voters were especially pronounced in the South. Of the ten former Confederate states that voted by mid-March of 2008, Obama won the white Democratic tally in just one – Virginia. His triumph with Democratic Caucasians there reflected support from relatively affluent and liberal suburbs surrounding
CAUCASIAN CROSSOVER CONCERNS
Further highlighting the persistent relevance of anti-black bias in white and especially white working- and lower-class voting behavior was a late February Pew Research poll showing that white Democrats would be significantly more likely to defect to the Republican presidential nominee John McCain if Obama was the nominee than if
Such findings do not bode well for those who hope or actually believe that Obama was truly leading
Anticipation of these sorts of depressing numbers (and indeed of the Wright imbroglio) is quite frankly part of why I supported Edwards (a problematic candidate about whom I held no progressive illusions but who ran to the strongly pro-labor “populist” left of both Hillary and Obama) in
There’s nothing mysterious about the overwhelming support Obama has gotten from black voters. For black primary participants, the huge majority of whom have chosen Obama (and who tell pollsters in large numbers that race is a major factor in their choice), it’s been a simple and (I think) highly understandable matter of racial pride. Despite lingering reservations about the bourgeois Obama’s “blackness,” the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president naturally carries no small weight in the black community
WHAT ELSE ARE PEOPLE SUPPOSED TO VOTE ON?
Class matters in shaping racialized voting behavior in a final way that one is unlikely to see mentioned in the dominant (“mainstream”) media’s campaign coverage. That’s because the corporate media is part of the problem.
We have a business-based ruling class in this country and one of the many methods through which that class rules is by setting strict limits on what can be discussed in elections. Candidates who want to get past the interrelated “hidden primaries” of wealth, corporate power, and corporate media have to stay within a shockingly narrow issue and policy spectrum. They cannot fundamentally question corporate privilege,
Given the painfully thin policy and ideology band within which candidates are compelled to operate by reigning corporate money and media filters, it’s often hard for voters to discern meaningful and substantive differences between them. The Hillary-Obama duel, featuring two imperial Wall Street Democrats joined at the moral and ideological hip, is a classic case in point.
Given the elite-mandated consensus on critical matters of class, race, and empire, an interesting question arises: what else are primary voters supposed to base their decision on except matters other than policy and ideology? The focus naturally shifts to the very things corporate media and election marketers emphasize in accord with their mission of turning citizens away from issues that matter: candidate image (brand), candidate “qualities,” candidate “character,” candidate “likeability,” and candidate race and gender identity.
On that subject, here is an interesting item from media coverage of the
“In Orangeburg, unemployment has disproportionately affected blacks even though, at more than 60 percent of the population, they hold the balance of political power. In 2006, unemployment among here was pushing 20 percent, while among whites it was 3.3 percent. Thirteen percent of households were below the poverty level, compared with 38 percent of black households.”
“Such dismal statistics have encouraged some voters to listen closely to the candidates’ proposals to give tax rebates, fix the trade imbalance and increase the minimum wage. But with the Democratic front-runners, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, in general agreement on many of those issues, some say discontent over the persistent racial divide – along with anger among some black voters over criticism of Mr. Obama by former President Clinton – will contribute to race-motivated voting on Saturday.”
Dewan mentioned the example of Townsend Pelzer, a black retired maintenance worker, “who said he was going to vote for Mr. Obama. Asked why, Mr. Pelzer shrugged, smiled, and pointed to his face, saying, ‘Color of my skin, I guess.’”
Scott Mattingly, a white economics teacher in a nearly all-white private school in Bowman, South Carolina, told Dewan that many of his fellow volunteers at the local Obama office were “ignorant of the issues and are far more excited about the concept of a black leader”.
Given the absence of serious differences between Hillary and Obama on “the issues,” it does not seem likely that overcoming the ignorance would have altered the curiously race-based voting decisions of presumably white teachers at a segregated white private school in the
Given the facts that “race” (14) remains an extremely powerful factor and in American life and history, it holds special resonance with voters struggling to make meaningful choices within the narrow spectrum that lay at the heart of
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former research director of The Chicago Urban League, He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005), and a forthcoming book on U.S. political culture and the 2008 presidential race.
1. Kirk Johnson, “We Agreed to Agree and Forgot to Notice,” New York Times, 6 January 2007, sec. 4, p.4.
2. In this essay I am concerned primarily with electoral politics and voting behavior, not
3. Gary Younge, “An Obama Victory Would Symbolize a Great Deal and Change Very Little,” The Guardian, 7 January 2008; Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). On Obama’s corporate-imperial conservatism see my following articles:
“Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; “The Obama Illusion: on the ‘Hopes of Slaves’ and the ‘Hamiltonian Ambitions’ of a Corporate-Imperial ‘Player,’ Z Magazine (February 2007). On Edwards, see “John Edwards and Dominant Media’s Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy,” ZNet Magazine (June 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13177.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct” (1967).
5. Andrew Kohut, “Getting it Wrong,” New York Times, 10 January, 2008, p. A27.
6. Karl Rove, “Why Hillary Won,” Wall Street Journal, 10 January. 2008, p. A15.
7. Marjorie Valbrun, “Race Matters: So Does Hope,”
8. Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, “Race Emerging as an Issue in the Democrats’ Campaign,”
8A. See the MSNBC exit poll data on
9. MSNBC, 2008 Primary Results and Exit Polls, read at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21225966; Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, “Racial Issue Bubbles Up Again for Democrats,” New York Times, 13 March 2008, A1, A14.
10. Dorning and Parsons, “Race Emerging.”
11. Dorning and Persons, “Race Emerging.”
12. Jodi Kantor, “Obama Denounces Statements of His Pastor as ‘Inflammatory,’” New York Times, 15 March 2008, p. A10.
13. Shaila Dewan, “Where Issues Carry Dollar Signs,” New York Times, 26 January, 2008, p. A12.
14. More accurately: the oppression structure of racism.