Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chauncey Devega says: White Hopes and White Dreams in Pennsylvania

Hillary's win in Pennsylvania was a disappointment but not a surprise. Today, pundits, analysts, academics, talking heads, and folks in the barbershop will be hypothesizing about why Obama failed to win Pennsylvania. Was it the after effects of the Obama-Wright affair? The comment that white working class people are "bitter"? A more effective use of machine politics by Hillary? The fall-out from the ABC debate/ambush of Obama?

I offer no clear answers. Accordingly, I must adhere to Occam's razor in my thoughts on Obama's defeat: when in doubt the simplest explanation is quite likely the correct one. The answer: a great many white people are not prepared to vote for a black man for president. Yes, issues matter. Yes, the candidates' personalities and the framing of the campaign impact vote choice. And no, I am not making a reductionist argument that the white bogeyman of racism caused Obama Pennsylvania.

What I am suggesting is that Obama's comment about the bitterness in these white communities, and this comment's reception by many in "Pennsytucky"--those semi-rural, rust belt working class white people--spoke to a different truth, and one not captured in the rush to explain away (or in some instances support) Obama's observation that religion, class alienation, and politics are knotted together.

This truth is found in memory, how people choose to imagine themselves and how they relate to their communities and nation. Obama, spoke to a truth in experience that he undoubtedly has felt as a black man traveling through Red States and the rust belt, a feeling that these white working class and poor people do not like him, do not trust him, and that there is a real racial animosity to be found towards people of color in these communities (for example: sundown towns, or as folks used to say, those towns where they won't sell you a house, rent you an apartment, where you better not stop to eat or use the toilet, and where you best be out of town by sundown). Likely, Obama, as an educated man, an activist, attorney, and student of history must have had moments where he asked himself, "the problems of poor white people and poor black and brown people are the same, but why can't we work together?" Be it the rust-belt or deindustrialized inner city communities, we are both suffering and hurting, where is the sense of shared fate?"

Ultimately, where is that sense of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp populism, this feeling that we are all in this together?

Unfortunately, the white working class, and the white poor are not rubes, they have not been tricked or duped by an insincere Right-wing populism. Yes, many liberals and moderates desperately want to believe that false consciousness and political trickery explains this group's consistent choice of race over class. Yes, many activists are hopeful that if they can just reach out to these disenfranchised white people, and open their eyes to the "truth," then the Republican party's strangle hold on guns, god, and culture will be broken. Some more hopeful souls are emboldened by Obama's victories in predominantly white states in the rural West, an ironic fact of political life where it now appears that to the degree that there are fewer blacks in a State, then some white voters are more likely to support a black candidate (apparently, it seems that living in close proximity to those who are racially different actually breeds more distrust, and sense of competition, rather than less).

Returning once more to memory and choice. Many of those whites who felt alienated from Obama and drawn to Hillary, angered by Obama's assertion that they are bitter or unsophisticated, share a different collective memory--this is their country. Outsiders have taken their opportunities. And the State, the White State, owes them a particular debt and obligation. Moreover, and what is Obama's central miscalculation, is the degree to which the many whites in the rust belt (and elsewhere) actively choose race over class. It is a choice. It is a calculation. They know what they do.

As W.E.B. DuBois, great philosopher and observer of American life once observed, whiteness pays a psychological wage--and many white working class and blue collar voters are gambling that these wages of whiteness will continue to accrue to their children and to their tribe. Perhaps, these Reagan Democrats, the white working class, the blue collar, and the white poor have a deep intuition of how the forces of globalization have "robbed" them of certain opportunities. But simultaneously, on a visceral level, the part of their psyche which smiles at the memory of a Norman Rockwellesque America (this place that never really existed) trusts that the system will right itself. Somehow, in their hopes, and in their dreams, "we" can return to the good old days. That time when white people, people like them, were exclusively at the center of American public life:

And no, many of these white rust belt voters are not willing to support a black man for president. More pointedly, these white voters will not trust Obama to be a steward for their White hopes and dreams.


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

While I agree with you that the white working class has not been "hoodwinked" by the Right, I don't think there's a conscious choice being made between race and class on their part. This is not to say that race is an not an important factor in the way they vote (it most definitely is), but that deep down they think politics is a racket and that both parties work in the interests of the powerful and wealthy. (Which isn't that far fetched). Because there doesn't seem to be any compelling class interest in voting, they will vote on race, guns, gays, abortion, and God. (And thus Obama gets beat in Pennsylvania.) These voters aren't thinking that they are choosing race over class, because for them class isn't even on the table. In Pennsylvania many just chose race. I think that if white working class voters really thought they were making a real choice between race and class, race might not win out.

chaunceydevega said...

They may not "think it" but that doesn't make it so? Right? There is lots of data (surveys, ethnographies, etc) that suggest the white working class knows what it is doing--from our point of view it may not make sense, but then again, maybe it does from the point of view about their hopeful futures? Plus, add some antiblack feeling and you have the recipe for voting against material interests? My friend, senor bear--that sounds dirty huh--how do you suggest we reach them? is it possible?

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Interesting. Black people have historically and demonstrated time and time again that they would vote for white candidates. In fact, as a matter of historical and political record whites have consistently voted for white candidates because they are white and have been pretty honest about not supporting black candidates because they black...exit polling data and public opinion research consistently demonstrate this point. It is this moment where whites may be voting for Obama and allowing themselves to overlook his race and see his issue positions that has gotten people so excited. And in fact Obama wasn't being supported by black Americans...or at least as many as one would think until Hillary and the Clinton wing of the party started acting like fools. Obama's issue positions align with those largely held by black Americans. I also think a great deal of white anxiety is this belief that Obama is going to upend the world and be self-interested in the same way that white politicians have self interestedly supported whites as a block...but for a variety of reasons that can't and won't happen.

How can you tolerate Larry Elder?

Yuck and yikes.