Thursday, September 17, 2009

Who's right, Jimmy or Barack?

So Jimmy Carter claims that the emotional, borderline-violent resistance to Obama by conservative whites is based on race. And Obama says it isn't. Which one's right?

The problem with this question is that the answer, like the role of racism in American politics in general, is deeply nuanced and doesn't lend itself easily to an A or B response. Ari and I had a spirited discussion on this very topic last week (see the comments here).

Jimmy Carter is making a causal argument: Obama's race is causing many conservatives to oppose him viciously. Of course, any causal argument implies a counter-factual one: if Obama were white, many conservatives would not be opposing him viciously. This, to my mind, strains credulity. Anyone who thinks a white Obama would not be encountering this kind of resistance just doesn't remember Bill Clinton's presidency. Jerry Fallwell called Clinton a murderer. Jesse Helms suggested that Clinton would be shot should he visit the Carolinas. A parody Clinton/Gore bumpersticker read "Commie/Bore." Hillary Clinton was, of course, called a murderous lesbian, as was Janet Reno. And, in the end, Bill Clinton was impeached. And by the way, he was white.

Now this doesn't mean that race has nothing to do with what's going on today. We obviously see a lot of racist crap showing up at protests and town hall meetings. And when white people scream that they want their country back, it's hard not to think that race is playing a role there.

One thing that was both surprising and gratifying was the relative lack of a race effect in last year's election. John Sides did a nice analysis showing that Obama's race may have hurt him by about one percentage point. That's not nothing, but it's far less consequential than many had expected earlier in the year. Of course, that's just another counter-factual argument -- a white Obama would have done about the same as the black Obama did. But this doesn't let white racists off the hook. The two major parties have polarized on racial issues in recent decades, to the point where most white racists, if they vote, are voting Republican. (No, I am not arguing that Republicans are racist. Just that most racists today are Republicans.) So of course Obama didn't lose votes because of his race. He was never going to get those votes anyway because he's a Democrat.

I am confident that either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would be facing similarly virulent opposition today were either of them president. Probably the same folks bringing the racist drivel to protests would be spewing misogynistic or gay-baiting slogans today. What's motivating the anger is simple ideological resistance to big government (properly distilled by conservative opinion-making elites). It has the added feature of bringing out the racists, but I don't think that's most of what's going on here. As I suggested earlier, you can explain much of what's going on without reference to race.


Milan said...

What's the deal with Obama endorsing Bennet over Romanoff? Will this put a kabash to Romanoff's prospects of getting elected?

Joe said...

Agreed, generally. I think most of it is populist angst and/or paranoid delusion and given the party sorting over the last 4 decades it doesn't matter much in elections. So let me couch my exception as conditionally as I can, and point out why I think the charge of racism should stick at the margins.

In WJ Cash's "The Mind of the South" he notes that relationships between poor southern farmers and their wealthy cousins did not erupt into class conflict because the poor cousins could always point to the blacks as being worse-off; in every dispute the whites sided with the whites. They controlled the government and no matter how badly they behaved they would stick together against the blacks. This was their bond.

Losing the presidency has utterly destroyed whatever vestige of comfort they gained from this. The "I want my country back" rhetoric is the agony of some whites (not many, I hope, but you only need a few for the cameras) realizing that their previous status as perennial top-dogs has been finally and irreversibly overturned. It's an existential crisis. They may like blacks, even have some black friends, but in the end the White House was always White. That security is now gone.

Seth said...

Good points, Joe.

Rob Rushing said...

Agreed—but every dyed-in-the-wool ultra lefty I know insists that it's race, race, race. And my own conversations with increasingly crazy right-wing relatives (and the occasional Facebook friend-of-a-friend) indicate that race is a persistent, almost fetishistic, point of fascination and contention. My mother opened with: "Why does he pretend that he's black? Where I grew up no one would call him black!" (She grew up—try not to laugh—in Arkansas.) Others asked virtually the same question: "Why does he pretend that he's white?"

Still, the tea bagger nuttiness seems to be inspired less by race than the intoxicating pleasures of rage and (Sen. Wilson) 14-year-old-boy misbehavior.

Seth said...

Thanks, guys. I've posted more on this topic here.

Nan said...

I would add Kazin's The Populist Persuasion and Roediger's, The Wages of Whiteness to Joe's comments.

Obama's existence IS an existential loss for white populists who've always chosen to bond across the much more daunting divides of class against blacks than to ally with blacks against class exploitation in the U.S. So when a Wilson makes his 14 year-old play for attention, which is directed to a black person in power from a white Carolinian, it taps into deep and quite subconscious strains across white popular culture.

p.s. The link between the GOP and racism extends way before the Southern Strategy, and U of OR leftie pal Joe Lowndes just put out a good book about it: From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. (Yale)