Obama, Class and the Racist Undead

by on May 14, 2008 · 5 comments

in Election

Watching Hilary Clinton these days is like watching a re-run of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In this film the undead rise from their graves and feed on the flesh of the living. The problem, however, is that they don’t know they’re dead, so they return to the places with which they were most familiar when they were alive-shopping malls. Yes, Hilary does not know she is dead, but she is. Her campaign is out of money, out of time, and, most importantly, out of votes. But she will continue to return to shopping malls, bars, and polling places in Kentucky and West Virginia searching for votes because that is the only thing she remembers.What Hilary’s campaign reminds us of is that we have not buried the conflicts between race and class in America. Hilary’s feeding on this issue is coming to an end, but there are legions of the undead in the Republican party who are anxious to take her place. The election in November will, in no small way, be determined by how this mixture of race and class plays out. The swing group in this election in the key battle ground states will be the working class, both white and Latino.

While the returns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and especially West Virginia remind us that white working class people find it difficult to vote for an African American, many progressive commentators have tried to dismiss this concern. They have argued that this racist vote is both too small to make a difference in the general election, and will be compensated by non-racist constituencies that Obama will be able to turn out. I think, however, the Democrats are whistling past the grave yard if they do not take this issue seriously.

West Virginia can be dismissed as part of the old South, a portion of the country that no Democrat is likely to carry. But places like Ohio and Pennsylvania are a different matter. Yes, I know that the number of respondents that said that race was an important factor in their vote in these states was relatively modest. According to exit polls in Pennsylvania, for example, only 12 per cent admitted that this issue was an important factor in their decision. But the key word here is admitted. It would be only logical to assume there are many more voters who felt the same way, but would not admit it to a pollster. There is even a measurable amount of people who cannot admit to themselves that they feel this way. Remember that in many primaries Obama was supposed to win or at least tie Hilary, but on election night he lost the state by significant margins (New Hampshire, Texas and even Pennsylvania are in this category). In the privacy of the voting booth a significant number of people who told pollsters that they intended to vote for him could not bring themselves to pull the lever for a black man.

Taking all this into account, I believe that it would not be unreasonable to suggest that any where from two to three times the number of Democrats (especially among the working class) have similar feelings. Using the Pennsylvania number above, this would mean that roughly one quarter to one third of Democrats have race based feelings of disquiet about Obama. Interestingly, this would roughly correspond to the number of Hilary supporters who said they would vote for McCain in November if she did not get the nomination. Many observers have said that these people will come back to the Democratic Party once the intensity of the primary is over. If my figures are anywhere close to accurate, this hope may be misplaced. And all this is among Democrats; what about Republicans?

The other point made in Obama’s defense is that he will be able to compensate for this working class racism by motivating a large number of new young voters to participate in November. Yes, young working class whites don’t seem to have this same degree of racism, but what is gained in this area is lost in regards to Latinos. Most exit polls indicated that in places like California, Texas, and Nevada Latinos were turned off to his candidacy. Unfortunately, racism is not confined to white working class people. In many inner city communities working class Latinos who live in economic and social competition with African Americans, have all too quickly acculturated to American racism. It looks like we will have to add to the white living dead, a significant number of Latino “muertos vivos”.

John Judas of the New Republic has suggested that Obama could be recreating the tragedy of the Mc Govern election in 1972. That is, he could be uniting African Americans with students and upper middle class whites, burying any hope of defeating the Republicans.

The good news about Judas’ fear is the bad news: we have had four decades of Republican economics since McGovern, and we are now closer economically to 1932 than 1972. We are facing one of the greatest economic crises since FDR, and this comes after forty years of economic neo-liberalism that has decimated unions and raised only the incomes of the top 1%. If Obama is to avoid the tragedy of McGovern, he will have to learn the lesson of the FDR years. Roosevelt was able to pull together the New Deal coalition of African Americans, working class whites, and southerners because economic hard times had made issues of class more important than race. Working class people are more likely to suppress their racism when issues such as unionization, education, healthcare, and home protection come to the fore.

As yet , however, Obama has not found his voice when it comes to this constituency. His supporters invoke his years as a community organizer as proof he can do this. While Obama has a gut level understanding of race and gender, his political understanding of class is lacking. Obama has been forced to confront racism by the fact of his skin color; and gender because of his single mother. He does not, however, have the same understanding of class. In this, he is like many other middle class Americans. For the last four decades issues such as race, gender, and sexuality have been at the forefront of the campus progressive community. Class has been rhetorically invoked, but seldom understood.

This does not mean going back to the language and policies of the 1930’s. Obama must reinvent class in a manner fit for the new millennium. This was the mistake of John Edwards. Edwards was the first mainstream Democrat since FDR who spoke in self consciously populist terms, but his populism was dredged up from the 1930’s and 60’s. Invoking the “Two Americas” combined economics from the 1930’s with the 1960’s concern for the underclass. It was Tom Joad meets Huey Newton, and it produced a populism with too hard an edge for most working class voters. Americans like their pills of class politics sugar coated.

This was something FDR never forgot. A gifted speaker with a sunny disposition, he was able to invoke and sympathize with those hurt by economic inequality, but to do so with words that spoke of hope and better days. While condemning economic royalists, he was able to tell stories in a fireside chat that promised a piece of the American dream for everyone. He was able to speak of destitution and poverty, but in terms relevant to his time.

This ability to spin together concern for inequality with a rhetoric of hope and empowerment takes an extremely gifted politician. It demands someone who can feel the pain that many Americans experience not just intellectually, but viscerally. It requires a man who is intelligent enough to formulate change in ways that seems more reassuring than threatening. It calls for someone with the vision to see how reducing economic inequality can heal not merely class divisions, but an environmentally challenged planet.

Yes, this is a tall order, but in a Barak Obama we may have just such a leader. If he is able to rise to this challenge, not only will he win, but the entire country will as well. If he is able to find a voice that unites the vast majority of Americans into a progressive campaign, then we will finally be able to kill the monster of working class racism that has haunted progressive politics since Nixon. With an Obama presidency maybe we will have more than a replay of the Dawn of the Dead, but the dawn of an era of hope. Besides, in the original Night of the Living Dead wasn’t it an African American who was the hero who saved the community from the scourge of the undead? Let us hope that life imitates Art.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sebastian May 14, 2008 at 9:56 pm

As an anarchist, I just hope I’m not one of los “muertos vivos”!


OB Joe May 15, 2008 at 7:05 am

I was reading recently about all the racist comments, threats and even vandalism against Obama campaign workers – people vowing never to vote for a black man. It’s still out there – the ugly monster of racism and I hope that his campaign is not derailed by its tentacles.


robbydrobot May 15, 2008 at 7:49 am

Interesting blog. Just remember that hardly ever is a party returned to power in the middle of a recession. ‘member Jorge Bush the first?


tim May 15, 2008 at 8:06 am

OB JOE – share yur concerns.


Richard Nadeau May 15, 2008 at 10:20 am

Gee whiz, and I thought we lived in a classless society.

I think race trumped class in W. Virginia. At least that’s what the exit polls indicated.

Hilary has no more experience in regard to working class reality than does Obama, so her big win cannot be attributed to her clas experience.

Edward’s endorsement should help Obama in this arena of class politics.


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