Obama, Black Voters and the Myth of Reverse Racism

awp.jpgSomehow I knew it would happen. In fact, I had even made a note to myself, indicating how long I thought it might take: twenty-four hours was my guesstimate, in case you’re interested.

Turns out I was overly optimistic, because it only took about nine hours from the time that my latest essay hit cyberspace–a piece in which I discussed white support for Barack Obama and what it does and doesn’t mean about race in America–until I received the first hostile response, offering the specific critique I had anticipated.

In the original article, I had mentioned (almost in passing, but nonetheless within the first paragraph), that there were still lots of whites who are unwilling to vote for a person of color because of race. Indeed, exit polling from the Ohio primary suggested this clearly, given that one-fifth of voters said the candidate’s race was important to their vote, and roughly six in ten who said this voted for Hillary Clinton. In other words–and this is just within the Democratic Party–literally hundreds of thousands of voters voted against Barack Obama and for Hillary Clinton because of race. Although this kind of voter racism may not be enough to deny Obama the party nomination, or even the Presidency, and although there are plenty of reasons other than race and racism why someone may vote for Clinton (or ultimately, John McCain), and against Obama, my point was simply that for many whites, race is still the deciding factor in their voting behavior.

Yet I knew as soon as I wrote it what some would say in response. It’s what lots of us white folks do whenever the specter of white racism is raised: namely, we try and change the subject and make ourselves into the victims, and black and brown folks into the perps. And there it was, in my e-mail box: the predictable and expected lamentations of white denial and victimhood.

“Funny how you try to spin those Ohio numbers,” it began. “So if someone said race was important to their decision, and they voted for the white candidate, that’s racism, but what about the forty percent who said race was important to their decision and voted for the black guy? Isn’t that racism too, by your logic?”

“Oh no, of course not,” the writer continued, “because those voters were probably mostly black themselves, while the Clinton voters who said race mattered were mostly white, and only whites can be racist, right?”

In other words, if voting for a white person because of their race is racism, then so too must be voting for a black person because of theirs. So see, those black Obama boosters are every bit as racist as we are, maybe more so, because they’re breaking his way by about eighty-five percent, while whites are splitting between Obama and Clinton by about fifty-fifty. So if anything, the e-mailer said, it was blacks who were more racist and whites whose voting behavior portended open-mindedness. And now that Obama has won the Mississippi primary, almost entirely due to the votes of blacks–and among those who said race mattered, nine in ten voted for him–this refrain will only become more prevalent, one supposes.

Such an argument–which is really the political equivalent of “Why can’t we have white history month, I mean, we have black history month?”–suggests how far we have to go in this nation simply to have a productive dialogue about race, let alone to really conquer racism.

Simply put, there are any number of reasons why whites voting for a white candidate because of race is altogether different than blacks voting for a black candidate because of the same. For African American voters, voting for Barack Obama–a man of color who actually stands a chance of winning the Presidency–is an opportunity to participate in a major historic moment. The pride and excitement caused by such a possibility (even for black folks who might not agree with all of his positions, and who might wish he spoke more about issues like racism and discrimination) is completely understandable and to be expected. Just as millions of women as women are understandably excited about the possibility of a Hillary Clinton Presidency–because it would be a history-making first and a real breakthrough in terms of gender (at least symbolically)–and just as many Catholics were likely inspired to vote for JFK because of a shared religious background, so too are many people of color likely to hop on board the Obama train as a way to make a statement. So if black folks say race was important to their vote, and they voted for Obama, it is this sense of achievement, and “firstness” that likely animates them. That, and of course the fact that they really do believe him to be the best person for the job.

Or if not the historicity of the moment, then perhaps black voters casting their ballots for Obama, and saying that race matters to their decision, were animated by a desire to elect someone who, because of his own identity, might better relate to their daily struggles. It would be nice, one imagines, to have a President who could understand because of some of his own life experiences, what it means to be a person of color in America. In that sense, identity and the experiences that such an identity likely gives a person, become bona fide qualifications and credentials in the eyes of persons sharing that identity.

But one thing we can almost guarantee is not among the reasons why a black voter might say race matters to their vote, and then vote for the black candidate, is deep-seated anti-white bias. After all, black folks have been voting for white people for years. They have voted for white Presidential candidates, white Governors, and white Congressional candidates time and time again, seeing as how they are often given very little in the way of a choice. So it’s not like black folks refuse to vote for white people. Indeed, the kind of black person whose anti-white biases were that deeply rooted, would probably be the kind of person for whom Obama would be unacceptable too (given his biracial ancestry, generally moderate positions, and fairly bland approach to addressing racial concerns), and who wouldn’t vote for him, in spite of a shared skin color. In other words, we can rest assured that when blacks vote for Obama, after saying that race mattered to their vote, they were casting a ballot for the black man, not against the white woman per se.

On the other hand, for a white voter to say race matters to their vote, and then to vote for the white candidate and against the person of color, is almost by definition about something else. It certainly can’t be due to excitement at the prospect of electing the first white President, or breaking with tradition, since we’ve had forty-three white guys in a row. And it’s not likely to be about the desire to vote for someone who can relate to their “struggles” as white people. After all, although there are millions of white people in the U.S. who are struggling to make ends meet, none of them are in that position because of their race, but rather in spite of it. So the “white struggle” as such simply doesn’t exist. The class struggle is real–and if a white, working-class candidate stood a chance of winning the Presidency lots of white working class folks would turn out for him or her because of that shared experience, and understandably so–but it is simply silly to think that whites would vote for Hillary Clinton, after saying race mattered to their vote, because they think she will be more understanding about their plight as white people.

What this leaves us is the very real likelihood that when whites say race mattered to their vote, and they voted for the white candidate over the candidate of color, the vote so cast was largely an anti-black vote. It wasn’t cast for the white person out of some form of in-group bonding so much as it was cast against the man of color, as an act of out-group rejection. And given the way in which the Clinton campaign has made Obama’s presumed inexperience and “lack of qualifications” the big issue in the primaries–and given how the “qualifications” trope plays so neatly into longstanding white biases about black ability and competence–it is hard to imagine any non-racist reason for someone to say “race matters” to their vote and then to cast it for Clinton.

In the end it really is as simple as this: for persons belonging to groups that have been consistently subordinated to view the world through the lens of their group status is both predictable and rational. It would be hard, indeed, not to do so. One’s identity as a subordinated group member shapes one’s experiences to such an extent that it will naturally come to inform how one views the world, and how one operates within it. This has been true for all subordinated groups. Even those groups whose institutional subordination has largely ended in the U.S. (like Italian or Irish Americans, or Jews) often see the society through the frame of their particular ethnic experience–and certainly did so in generations past. So naturally, for persons of color whose subordination has continued to be institutionalized, engaging in acts of racial bonding makes sense. Voting for Obama may be one such act, for at least some black voters.

But for members of groups that have not been subordinated to “think with their skin” or their racial identity is quite a bit different, and more problematic. For dominant group members to engage in racial bonding only makes sense as a way to maintain dominance. It can’t be about “getting a piece of the pie,” since such persons already have access to it, and pieces galore; rather, it has to be about preventing others from getting theirs, from taking parts of the pie to which the dominant group had come to feel entitled. It is not to seek a place at the table, but to seek to secure the table you already have from the intrusion of others. White bonding, in other words, amounts to racism because it is redundant: it amounts to having those who are already largely in control, secure that control in perpetuity. It results in the maintenance of racial inequity, unequal opportunity and massive disparities in access and life chances. Black and brown bonding, on the other hand, is about gaining access, securing a spot, and collectively lifting up members of subordinated communities to a place where they can compete as equals with those who have always been in charge. There is nothing supremacist or racist about that at all, unless one presumes that–as Jesse Jackson and others have long said–there is no fundamental difference between a “Welcome” mat and a “No Trespassing” sign.

wise-speaking-pic.jpgBut there is a difference, in both practical and ethical terms. Those black voters (and for that matter non-black voters) who vote for Obama because of his race are striving for the welcome mat, however naive they may be in thinking that his victory would really open the door all that widely for others. Those white voters who vote for Clinton because of hers, on the other hand, are quite clearly continuing to hang the “No Blacks Need Apply” sign from their electoral window. And if we can’t see the distinction between those two things, it becomes hard to imagine how we will ever conquer the larger racial inequities that continue to plague us as a nation. How indeed.

by Tim Wise

Tim Wise is one of the most respected anti-racist writers and educators in the U.S., having spoken in 48 states and on over 400 college campuses. He has trained teachers, as well as corporate, government, media, and law enforcement officials on methods for dismantling institutional racism, and has contributed essays to 20 books. He is the author of White Like Me, Reflections on Race from a Priviledged Son, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White.

Other articles by Tim:

Racism, Sexism and the Deceptive Social Science of the Far Right

Published by the LA Progressive on July 16, 2008
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