A few meandering thoughts on racial anxiety and Obama’s right-wing opposition
As I’m sure most of you have noticed by now, I write (and think!) a fair amount about racial politics. Indeed, it goes beyond my blogging – a good chunk of my undergraduate education focused on the intersection of race and politics, and my senior thesis expanded on some ideas I have regarding the nexus of race and religion in American politics. That said, I try not to read racial motivations into every dust-up or controversy. Nine times out of ten, race has nothing to do with a given incident, and if it does, it usually isn’t immediately obvious or even necessarily pertinent.
This is all by way of saying that I have struggled to give Obama’s more vocal critics something of the benefit of the doubt. Even the most outlandish attacks are grounded in something approaching a legitimate fear, and dismissing those folks is as simply prejudiced is as unfair as it is incomplete (as far as explanatory value goes). But, at the risk of sounding a little predictable, I can’t help but reconsider my reticence at using the “prejudiced” card, especially in light of this completely ridiculous “controversy” over President Obama’s address to the nation’s students. It’s something of an understatement to say that this outrage, over a routine presidential address to children, is absolutely absurd, even granting the fact that the right-wing completely freaks out over the reality of a Democratic president. And while there are certainly a few possibilities as to why conservatives have latched on to this particular address as a rallying point, I think the simplest explanation – and the one which goes further to explain a good deal of this irrational opposition – is that these folks are (still) terrified and bewildered at the fact that our president doesn’t look like them. Their sincere ideological opposition is mixed up with a unconscious – or conscious, for that matter – fear of blackness and what they perceive as its “contaminating” effects.
That is, the narrative of white supremacy in this country is a narrative of “purity.” In this story, America was built white hands, and it’s the job of those hands to keep the country – and her virtues – free of contamination from “mongrel” races. Hence Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws, and the “one-drop” rule*, as well as the fierce obsession with racial purity in Southern religious traditions. Of course, this is something of an oversimplification (I’m setting aside a whole lot about economics and power relations), but it gets the basic outline right: an initial prejudice transformed, over the course of American history, into a distinctive narrative of white supremacy and racial purity. And one that still holds quite a bit of currency; a recent study (and unfortunately, I can’t find the link) suggests that most Americans continue to associate “black” with dirtiness and “white” with cleanliness. The study doesn’t draw any conclusions about the impact this might have on race relations, but you’d be delusional to think that it doesn’t influence the ways in which Americans – of all races – see each other.
This all said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that its children and health care which are sending the right-wing into a rabid froth. After all, both are associated with purity; parents – terrified of a fifteen minute presidential address – are yanking their children out of school in an effort to protect their “innocent” children from contamination by the words of a “socialist” (which, historically, is a charge often thrown at prominent black leaders). And retirees are denouncing health care reform as an attempt by socialists/communists to, essentially, taint their benefits by “giving them away” to illegal immigrants and other non-white “others.”
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, so I want to end it with this link to a LA Times article on President Obama’s rapidly declining support among white voters. Read it, and the explanations by various analysts and strategists, and I think you’ll come away with a solid impression that underneath all of the controversy, there is a real and palatable racial anxiety on part of white voters, and that’s driving a good chunk of the opposition to Obama’s presidency.
Maybe people wanted change but not creeping socialism. Obama didn’t get white folks to vote for him in the first place based on his race so why assume that is why he is losing them now?Report
From the Wiki article on the 2008 election, “Voters aged 18–29 voted for Obama by 66–32 percent while elderly voters backed McCain 53–45 percent.”
The elderly has usually been a reliable Democratic constituency, but not this time around. I wonder if feared “creeping socialism” or a black man.Report
I would love it if every president put out a DVD of himself (or herself!) reading The Constitution. Play the DVD in every civics class in every Elementary, Middle, and High School in America.
Heck, have the House Speaker read the portion dealing with the House. Have the Majority Leader read the part of the Senate. Have the Chief Justice read the part about the Supreme Court.
(The best part is that we could also use it as evidence at any given impeachment hearing!)
When it comes to the speech that Obama is going to give, I generally don’t have a problem with it. It’s full of bromides that will make the students roll their eyes at yet another square telling them to stay in school, listen to parents, and say no to drugs.
But when I imagine, say, Dubya saying something to students like “we all need to support our War Effort in Afghanistan and Iraq… God Bless America”, I find myself thinking “that is not something that I’d want the President telling kids” and yet… I wouldn’t mind if he gave them a speech about listening to parents, staying in school, and not doing drugs.
If parents are freaking out over Obama, is it because they think that he’d be saying the equivalent of “we all need to support the war effort”? Is it fair for them to freak out about that?Report
Er, I mean, Public Schools are the problem in the first place.
(Sorry. Forgot that I had a rep to protect.)Report
Boo hiss. I think that the constitution is the problem.Report
There is no contemporary political issue which cannot be painted in a racial light. I’m not sure that there is any side of any issue that can’t be made to be racist. Is race an aggravating factor in opposition to Obama? I really don’t know. A lot of Democrats will come to the conclusion that it must be. Few Republicans will. Coincidentally, this will make each side feel better about themselves.
But here’s what I do know. Or at least feel strongly. If Democrats stand by the notion that racism is a significant factor in opposition to what this president decides to do… if opposition to his flavor of change on any number specific issues is rooted in that this change is offered by a black man… it will harm Obama far more than racism did. The level of condescension (“We know why you’re thinking what you’re thinking better than you do” or “Don’t you get it?! You’re becoming a rube for RACISTS!”), the severity of the accusation (people really, really don’t like being called racist – especially if they’re among those that voted for Obama in the first place or gave him the benefit of the doubts in polls immediately following his election), and the failure to address whatever it is that they’re objecting to (fears of lost medicare coverage, economic damage to cap and trade) or the failure to receive it (if the accusation of racism is all they hear) will do irreparable harm to the Obama Administration and will help it not a bit.Report
To flip your theory around – if racism is driving white away from Obama, is it racial identification alone that is keeping blacks and other minorities with him? Or do you contend they see beyond his color and review his policies with disinterested minds and no outside agenda?Report
Well, no. For starters, it makes more sense to look at African-American support for Obama as a product of partisan identification (albeit influenced by racial identification). Black – and minority more generally – support for Obama falls well within historical norms as far as black support for Democratic politicians goes. What’s more, conservatives have been estranged from minority communities for a good chunk of time, and so even if blacks were dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, it’s unlikely that they’d turn to Republicans en mass, because they don’t perceive the latter as being friendly to their broad interests.Report
So whites are leaving Obama because they are racists, but blacks stay with him because his policies are most beneficial to them?Report
The whole “benefit of the doubt” thing troubles me.
“Sure, sure… maybe it’s possible to be a principled opponent in theory… but look at this guy, this guy, and this guy!”
This is what was done to ANSWER at the anti-war protests. There were one-thousand reasons to oppose Iraq (and, sure, one-hundred to oppose Afghanistan)… but those arguments didn’t get as much play as the guys carrying the “we support our troops when they shoot their officers” signs… which means that we’re no longer discussing Iraq (or Afghanistan) but talking about why there are so many Palestinian flags, Che shirts, signs talking about Rachel Corrie and people who are, apparently, giving away some Mumia.
Sure, maybe there are people who legitimately oppose Iraq… but most of them are there for the drum circle. We can thus wave away arguments from the opposition.
What about people who support the war, I hear you ask? What about them? They’re standing with our President. They’re Patriotic. They’re Good Americans. Sure, some of them may be a hair bloodthirsty and looking for revenge after 9/11… but they are fringy types who can be dismissed as wackaloons who are not, absolutely not, representative. Hey, at least they aren’t associated with groups like ANSWER, right?
I saw this trick used to great effect in the run-up to both wars.
Without even going into which side was right, I know (personally) how easy it is to assume that the bad faith is all over there (they’re practically a fifth column) and the good faith is all over here (with exceptions, of course, there are always exceptions, to be sure, but you have to understand that the exceptions, deplorable as they are, are not representative).Report
I’ll agree. I think racial identification has a lot to do with the way African Americans, in particular, view Obama. I know it’s not scientific, but I live in a pretty multiracial city – and work in a pretty multiracial environment – and I think black people have a very strong affinity for Obama that has a whole lot to do with race. They don’t support him just because he’s a Democrat – even though they probably would support him in equivalent numbers even if he were a white Democrat – it also matters that he’s “one of us”.
I see nothing wrong with that kind of identification, either. What does bother me is the way conservatives so often frame this as a takedown of the opposite position. That, because blacks like Obama for his blackness, it’s excusable for whites to dislike him for it. There’s this idea that taking pride in one’s racial identity and showing hostility to those who have a different racial identity are synonymous – but they aren’t. Racialism (for lack of a better word) and racism are not the same, and one is not nearly as bad as the other.
As for the substantive charge, I’m not sure how racism interacts with the school speech, but I will go on the record to point out that there is essentially no other explanation for the birther movement. A certain segment of white Republicans are fixated on Obama’s birth certificate because he’s black. These people are racists. There are no other convincing explanations for their behavior. And, as such, it does call into question what they say about everything else the President does.Report
The reaction regarding the specch was the administration’s fault for first giving classroom assignments in addition to the speech which asked how the kids could best serve the president. After the initial reaction, the administration changed the speech to something bland and uncontroversial, but, by then many parents didn’t trust it, especially after seeing Hollywood’s video of “pledges” — if the bush administration had tried to do what Obama originally had planned, they would have been hounded by the press into hell. I knew the racial angle was eventually going to be played, but it’s a losing strategy — It’s going to insult what support is left.Report
A few things –
1. I have no doubt that race plays a role in at least some of the backlash against Obama. However, with the exception of a very small number of card-carrying KKK types who openly hoped that an Obama presidency would spark a race war, I have a hard time saying this is a primary or substantial motivating factor in why a lot of whites who voted for Obama have turned against him. It is certainly a primary motivation for some unknown number of people who have been opposed to Obama from Day 1, and for others who would have opposed him no matter what his race, I have little doubt that his race has been a major reason why their rhetoric and actions have been so over the top. But there were a lot of people who voted for Obama for a variety of reasons having little to do with support for his economic platform or the (D) after his name.
2. Although it is possible that the “socialism” line of attack has become a racial dog whistle, I have some serious doubts, and the claim in the Serwer post you link about a history of that term being used as such is just off-base. First, Obama is hardly the first Dem politician to get attacked with that word – Duke Cunningham rather infamously took that line of attack against, IIRC, Rep. DiFazio in a 2000 floor speech, and even now I see that label used just as regularly against any number of Congressional Democrats – the major difference is just that Obama is now the most prominent Democrat.
Second, the Serwer article implicitly assumes that civil rights leaders were the only ones to be falsely labeled “communist” or “socialist” in the 50’s and 60’s. Yes, Hoover investigated MLK as a communist – then again, Hoover investigated just about anyone who agitated for social change (and I’m sure plenty who didn’t) as a communist. Moreover, I am unaware of any single instance where Hoover publicly linked MLK to Communism (not saying it never happened, just that my research was unable to find any). The same seems to apply to Malcolm X. The point is that the surest way of going after advocates of social change in the 50’s and 60’s was by labeling them as Communists/socialists who only wanted social change as a means to the implementation of Communism and socialism – this was true not only of civil rights advocates but also, as we all know, plenty of people in Hollywood.
It’s also worth noting that Malcolm X had plenty of quotes in which he didn’t exactly try to avoid being linked to socialism or communism. The great Paul Robeson was an acknowledged card-carrying member of the Communist Party, and WEB DuBois and A. Phillip Randolp were likewise quite open about their socialism and/or Marxism.
None of this is meant as a perjorative by the way – a lot of these affiliations appear to be alliances of convenience or otherwise understandable. These men were all fighting a well-entrenched status quo, a status quo that, particularly early on, was only being fought by communists and socialists.
3. Although most of the insanity over Obama’s address to schoolchildren is completely over-the-top, it’s worth noting that Dems reacted quite strongly to the first Bush doing just about exactly the same thing, so the general idea of a President creating controversy by addressing the nation’s schoolchildren all at once is nothing new. And, frankly, the supporting materials are a bit creepy in the way they are written.
4. Finally, it’s worth remembering that this kind of drop in support is pretty typical for any President. Presidents have a tendency to misread their mandates and act as if everyone who voted for them supports every part of their agenda. Not surprisingly, when they do this (and to a certain extent, they need to do this if they’re going to do anything at all), those who weren’t overly keen on that part of the President’s agenda react quite strongly.
5. I find the way in which the LA Times story is written very strange. It emphasizes the loss of support amongst white voters but makes no comparison to determine whether there has been a corresponding loss of support amongst other voters or amongst all voters. The article emphasizes a dip in support of 11% amongst white Dems, 9% amongst white independents and whites over 50, and 12% amongst white women between April and August – but then gives no numbers for any other group. If you actually compare the overall Pew poll data between April and August, you will note that in April Obama’s overall job approval ratings were 63% approve, 26% disapprove; in August, his overall job approval ratings were 52% approve, 37% disapprove. That’s an 11-point shift in the overall numbers, which is greater than the shift amongst white independents and seniors, equal to the shift amongst white Dems and only one point less than the shift amongst white women. In other words (and unfortunately, the link to the demographic-level data is broken), it appears that Obama’s drop in approval is unrelated to race – the drop appears equal across-the-board.Report
You raaise a good point which is that if all these whites ar eleaving Obama because of racism, does that mean they were suppressing their racist tendencies when they pulled the lever for him last November, or did he do something to make them all suddenly hate black people?Report
Claiming racism for Obama’s lack of support is much more intellectually comfortable for some Dems than examining the coherence of his policies.Report
Tossing around smug, contentless zingers on the Internet is much more intellectually comforting for some trolls than responding to actual arguments.Report
As Jamelle says himself, this piece is “a few meandering thoughts” and hardly an argument. When there is something intelligent to argue against I will do so.Report
“The people who oppose this policy do so not because of some theoretical principled opposition but because they have some psychological disorder.”
“Oh yeah, well, you only think that because *YOU* have some psychological disorder!!!”Report
I’m probably more inclined (judging from the extended caveat, at least) to ascribe racist/racial motives than Jamelle is. And yet I don’t think race had much play in the (ridiculous) school speech controversy.
I believe it works like this: Obama is evil. Evil people with power are sinister. Therefore Obama giving a speech to children is a sinister act of influence over children. Note that this requires no concomitant objection to Reagan or Bush giving speeches to children because they are good. And good people with power are not sinister, they are noble.Report
“I believe it works like this: Obama is evil. Evil people with power are sinister. Therefore Obama giving a speech to children is a sinister act of influence over children. Note that this requires no concomitant objection to Reagan or Bush giving speeches to children because they are good. And good people with power are not sinister, they are noble.”
These facile assessments such as this are becoming sickening. Does anyone not think past partisan cartoon versions of politics anymore?Report
Not when the behavior in question is a partisan cartoon. People are yanking their children out of school and screaming about socialism because the President is giving a speech that virtually every President gives. It’s not our assessment that’s cartoonish; it’s the fact that conservatives insist on behaving like cartoon characters.Report
Stimulus. Response. Stimulus. Response.Report
Your argument is that, because liberals once acted like complete morons, conservatives are absolved for their moronic behavior? I think your link only provides further evidence that everyone acts like a cartoon character when their side isn’t in power.Report
Hi, I’m Jaybird. My point is that everyone acts like a cartoon character when their side isn’t in power.Report
We agree. Which is why I wonder why we spend so much time trying to understand the motives of these people. They’re cartoon characters. Or, as John Cole puts it, THEY’RE CRAZY PEOPLE. Reasoning with the insane is pointless.Report
I suspect that the set of “these people” may be twice as large as I am assuming you suspect it is.
If you want to point out that, no, you’re including friggin’ everybody over there in DC who is inclined to wear a Sunday clothing to work in “these people”, let me agree with you wholeheartedly.Report
We’re probably pretty close to agreement. I am less bothered by liberals at this exact moment because I think they, whatever their faults, are behaving in a slightly less completely batshit insane fashion. But still.Report
Yes, Ryan, that’s deep.Report
I’m sorry, do you have a better explanation for the behavior of people objecting to the school speech? I’m all ears.Report
Do you even know how many parents objected to the speech enough to take their kids out of school? I can’t believe intelligent people fall for all this political spin. What little I’ve heard directly from the parents has more to do with the original plan to have an assignment go along with the speech what the kids can do to help the president. The president is ubiquitous and people are getting tired of him inserting himself in every event. When it comes to children, emotions run high, and if the parents don’t agree with Obama politically, they don’t want anything that looks like indoctrination — and the original plan which was announced on the news gave the perception that the kids were being led to a political viewpoint, that the Democrats were taking advantage of this to push their party.
The old idea “perception is reality” was bandied about by all the intellectuals for years, so the Obama adminsitration should have known how the assignments would be perceived. After the administration changed the speech and ditched the assignment, I imagine some parents simply said — “Screw them, I’m not going to let my kids be led by a politician.” The administration and the media then picked up on the opposition, which was the same as NEA’s opposition to Bush talking to schoolkids, and made it it look like crazy Republican parents were paranoid about a harmless speech. Quite a mountain out of a molehill and quite a spin. If Obama’s “clever” advisers aren’t careful, they are going to turn independents against him. This is getting to be a battle between a small faction of pregressives and the American public — I imagine the number of parents who took their kids out of school was very insignificant, but the administration’s gameplaying and framing people as crazies is going to backfire big time.Report
not pregressives, but progressives.Report
I think if Obama’s goal is to keep the support of independents, he should definitely listen to libertarian concern trolls.Report
It can’t hurt.
He could explore pulling out of Iraq! Hey! Maybe he should investigate Bush’s torture policies! Maybe he could reverse the tide of federal involvement in busting medical marijuana dispensaries. He could even give lip service to the idea of gay people deserving the same civil protections given common law relationships.
Nah. Let’s listen to the base instead.
What do they want to have happen?Report
In fairness to Obama, he seems to think ignoring his base is a good way to keep the support of independents too. I suspect he’s sort of right about that, no matter how much I disagree with him.
I know libertarians fundamentally don’t get this sometimes, but putting nonviolent drug offenders in jail and stigmatizing homosexuals are basically *popular*.Report
I’d rather be an unconstructive interlocutor, thanks.
Have fun explaining how putting nonviolent drug offenders in jail and stigmatizing homosexuals is something that you’ve grown to just live with.
I’m sure you’ll be exceptionally popular.Report
Well, I’ve grown to live with it to the extent that it’s the reality I have and the combined force of my will and all the comments I leave on blog posts isn’t going to change it. What is endlessly frustrating about libertarians is this constant retreat to perfection. “The politics of the moment aren’t what I think they would be in an ideal world, so to hell with everyone/thing!” It’s like the economist in the hole assuming a ladder, and it’s just as arbitrary.
But notice one thing: Obama’s administration has effectively legalized marijuana in several states just by refusing to prosecute people who are obeying the laws of their home states, and he has extended benefits to same-sex couples as best he can given the political reality. It ain’t perfect by any means, but it’s light years better than any Republican would have given us. Obama is already the best President of my lifetime, and I’ll take what I can get.Report
Are you calling me a troll? You must have run out of idea.Report
with an “s”Report
He probably didn’t notice the whole “Republicans calling Libertarians ‘concern trolls’ after 2004” thing.Report
Yes, one day they will understand that we hate both parties right now, equally — we’re equal opportunity haters. Everytime I criticize the Democrats on some blog or another, an energetic Democrat will hop and say — “Oh yeah! well Bush started it!” — to which I can say “You’re damn he did, and don’t you forget it, Bub!”Report
I assure you I perfectly understand your hatred for both sides. Which is exactly why debating libertarians on the internet is so utterly pointless. You simply aren’t constructive interlocutors. You’re completely tuned out of the actual workings of the political system. That’s nice for a debate society and completely worthless for the project of actually governing a country.Report
“That’s nice for a debate society and completely worthless for the project of actually governing a country.”
Last time I checked, the internet was no more than a debate society. No one here is actually governing a country, yourself included. I’d also add that there are usually as many or more independents than there are Republicans or Democrats, which means that ignoring those who are equal opportunity haters (a group that is broader than just libertarians to be sure) ensures listening to only about 30-40% of the population.Report
Your assumption is that those independents are true independents. As Gallup will be happy to tell you, that is quite a bit false.
For instance, I’m an independent. Any guesses where my sympathies lie right about now?Report
There was a time, long ago, when my sympathies laid with the Republican Party. They proceeded to be bad where they were supposed to be bad and not very good at all where they were supposed to be good. So I found my sympathies switching to the Democratic Party. They likewise proceeded to be quite bad where they were supposed to be bad and not very good at all where they were supposed to be good. So I again found my sympathies shifting to the Republican Party. This time, I even went full bore and tried working for one or two. A year or two later, they even got into power. Except they turned out to again be really bad where they were supposed to be bad and (this time) bad where they were supposed to be good. So, again, my sympathies switched to the Dems. And, once again, I found that they were really bad where they were supposed to be bad, and pretty bad where they were supposed to be good.
It was around this point that being an equal opportunity hater started making sense. So I started writing about the way I think things ought to be rather than the way they are. Maybe, at some point, someone will realize that the political realities don’t need to be the politicial realities.Report
Ryan, calling people “objectively pro-Saddam” because they oppose the war is a cheap rhetorical trick. You shouldn’t use it for people who oppose the (crappy) party in power… and doubly not when they maintain their opposition to the (crappy) party in power when the new boss gets sworn in.
Instead of calling libertarians “concern trolls”, may I suggest you call them idealists who need to learn how the world really works and they need to pick a side?
Oh. I see that you were working on that.
For the record, I suspect that is stronger footing for you. (Here’s something that you can use: Point out how that society would be destroyed if people did whatever they wanted.)Report
I think you misunderstand my position slightly, Jaybird. While it is true that I think libertarians would benefit from picking a side, that’s not exactly why I say “concern troll”. I called Mike that because he offered Obama political advice about how to keep independents onboard. But Mike, as you have all noted about yourselves as well, is not on Obama’s side. Why should Obama take advice from a guy who is largely opposed to Obama’s game plan? Especially when that advice is being given by a member of what is quite possibly the least popular ideological grouping? It’s concern trolling precisely because Mike isn’t the least bit interested in helping Obama or the Democrats – which, of course, is basically the definition of concern trolling.Report
So, we can’t comment on Obama unless we are supporters. I’m neutral towards Obama. What I think has to be stopped is progressivism. If Obama is a die hard progressive, then none of my recommendations amount to anything, but if he is looking for a way to govern within the liberal tradition of our country, then my recommendations are valid. You seem to be implying I’m anti-Obama, the person, which is an odd claim I don’t think you can prove — it’s also an insulting claim I deny. You are choosing ad hominem, I suppose, because you can’t defend whatever it is you believe. If you can make me out as simply anti-Obama (that has racial suggestions) and a concern troll, then you can avoid the criticisms and feel smug. Your tactic is empty and impotent — so is the whole effort to make this about race — it’s just an attempt to marginalize those who oppose the progressive policies.Report
Obama is a progressive. Ask him some time, and I’m sure he’ll say so. If your mission is to “stop progressivism”, you are opposed to Obama’s mission. I didn’t once say you’re opposed to the person or accuse you of racism – who’s engaging in ad hominem here exactly? I simply said that your crocodile tears are unwelcome.Report
Unwelcome? — oh my. Now you’ve hurt my feelings.Report
Since you hallucinated me calling you a racist, apparently it’s not that difficult an achievement.Report
Honestly, anyone who thinks the President giving an anodyne speech to schoolchildren is socialist should not be sitting at the grown-ups table.Report
Good post. About as fair an assessment of those who disagree with Obama as I have heard in some time. It really isn’t about race, sometimes people simply don’t feel his command of things (the ailing economy, two wars abroad, etc.) Guess running for president is much easier than actually being president.Report
worth noting that a majority or plurality of white voters have not endorsed a democratic presidential candidate since 1964.Report
It seems like Jamelle is the one who has the racial hangups. Get over it. Race is meaningless.Report
I do not see the meaningless of it when the Congressperson from South Carolina is playing to it and what I hear about O. in my part of the Land from people who cannot simply accept a Black president makes me grit my teeth.Report