Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ain't No Mountain High Enough-The Measure of a Man: Barack Obama, White Privilege, Money Raised, and a Losing Race

Race is indeed the invisible elephant in the room during the 2008 election. We have joked about this fact, pointed to it, and satirized it, but the fact is undeniable: the mainstream media, our fourth estate has failed to report the obvious--that race "matters" in this election in ways which they are loathe to admit. Simply put, the mainstream media has been horribly negligent in their efforts to talk around the issue rather than forcefully engaging it. Yes, we are all (to varying degrees) invested in America's mythology of racial inclusion, of the hope of colorblind politics. But when the fact, the truth, is horribly self-evident we, you, us, me have an obligation as the tired refrain goes, "to speak truth to power."

During this past weekend, and into this week as well, it seems that the mainstream corporate media may have in fact rediscovered race and its impact on the McCain-Obama contest. Time magazine, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and others are now amazed that perhaps, just perhaps there are White (as opposed to white, I always make this qualifier for our white allies because yes, it does matter in the final calculus) voters who will not vote for a black candidate.

Apparently, you can walk on water and they will not vote for you. You can cure cancer and they will not vote for you. You can save the Earth from an asteroid and they will not vote for you. The fact of your being, of your negritude is too much for them to sacrifice the psychological wage that comes with whiteness. Ultimately, Blackness is the barometer against which whiteness and American identity are judged, and it is these two facts which are among the greatest tragedies of American social and political life.

To make real the problem of race for Barack Obama, I turn to the realm of the quantitative. Here, I introduce a simple question. I ask, how much more money has Obama raised than McCain? And what should this tell us about his chances of victory?

I return to money, because in politics resources are a simple and reliable predictor of success. Money buys access, influence and exposure. Now money isn't everything, as there was many a candidate who was well resourced but who fell to defeat.

But, the case of Barack Obama, a man with a message, who is charismatic and accomplished, and is one of the most, if not THE most well-resourced candidate in American presidential history, has a war chest overflowing with dollars, and yet is hamstrung by an apparent inability to translate these resources into a resounding lead, does in fact tell us a great deal about the likelihood of an Obama victory in November.

By all measures, Obama should be polling significantly ahead of John McCain. Frankly, the Democrats could run a brown (not a yellow) dog in 2008 and he should win by every rule of American politics (get the joke?). The "out party" is facing an incumbent party in a horrendous economy, with dismal approval numbers, an unpopular war, a public which overwhelmingly believes we are going in "the wrong direction," and one of the most unpopular presidents in history. Nevertheless, McCain is hanging uncomfortably close.

Consider to date that Obama has raised approximately 246 million more dollars than John McCain.

Consider that the dollar bill is approximately 6 inches long.

So how long, and how high, is Obama's money?

Obama has raised so much more money than McCain that his stacks of money if laid end to end would total 23,295 miles.

A length almost equal to the circumference of the Earth;

A length equal to 3,398 Marianas Trenches;

A length equal to 15 Great Walls of China;

A length equal to 84,594 Sears Towers;

A length equal to 4,239 Mount Everests;

A length equal to 21,391,304 Clarence Thomas's.

A powerful set of visuals are they not?

Here is where the concept of white privilege becomes especially valuable. Yes, while Tim Wise and others have done a wonderful job of speaking to the dynamics of white privilege as they relate to the Obama-McCain contest, there is one fact which has gone overlooked in these conversations. White privilege is spoken of as an advantage in day to day life. It is an asset. It is what is commonly described as an unearned "wage," one both psychological and material for White Americans. White privilege is invisible but real. It is valued but denied. It has a worth both in terms of how it smooths over the edges of life while it simultaneously goes denied. White privilege is present and known, but it is also invisible, a trait which explains why so many cannot name white privilege, but simultaneously cling so feverishly to it...and defend it even when it is against their immediate, material, self-interests.

White privilege is more than a wage or advantage, and as I write elsewhere (another hint as to my government name) it is a debit, a charge against those who are not White. It is a monthly withdrawal against the account, against your worth, against your assets be you a person of color or a less than fully empowered (and invested) White person.

If you accept this premise, that whiteness is a charge, in this case against Obama's blackness, we can begin to understand the uphill battle faced by Barack Obama's campaign in winning the hearts and minds of "average" voters.

Annually, a series of surveys is conducted that ask white respondents, "how much would it cost for you to permanently become a black person?" In essence, these surveys are asking, "how much is your whiteness worth to you?" Consistently, the agreed upon number is 1 million dollars. Yes, 1 million dollars for white respondents to become black. The numbers disguise an equally troubling set of facts, although not entirely unexpected, that in these surveys there is a wide range of value assigned to whiteness depending on how the question is asked.

For example, if white respondents are specifically asked, "how much would you have to be paid in order to become a black American?" the answer is only 5,000 dollars. Why? because of an unwillingness to admit that black Americans have legitimate grievances in the present, and that white Americans have some culpability and responsibility to and for these inequalities (of note: in this first wave of questions white respondents are so insensitive to the realities of race that by comparison, to give up television would require a 1 million dollar payout).

When the questions are accompanied by facts about racism, the number shoots up to 500,000 dollars for whites to become black (Isn't the truth a bitter pill?). When the question is abstract, i.e. set in a fictional country where white respondents are asked if they want to be in the "minority" or "majority" given the facts presented, whites value "in-group" membership at 1 million dollars.

In total, this range of responses highlights just how far Barack Obama is lagging behind John McCain in the presidential contest.

Again, let's convert these dollar values into debits which count against Obama's huge lead in resources.

If we make a conservative estimate that 5 million White voters will not vote for Obama under any circumstance, but value their whiteness at the ranges noted above, how much distance is "charged" against Barack Obama's lead?

However counted, the debit is a large, if not an insurmountable one.

Let's consider for the purposes of our exercise that there are 5 million white voters (a conservative estimate) who will not support Obama under the scenario above:

If these voters value their Whiteness at 5,000 dollars this is equal to 2.4 million miles (where the formula is 5,000 dollars X 6 inches X 5 million people divided by 63,360 inches in a mile). By comparison, the distance from the Earth to the moon averages 236,000 miles. The total amount debited against Obama's lead in distance is equal to 1o times the distance from the Earth to the moon.

If these voters value their Whiteness at 500,000 dollars then McCain's distance is 237 million miles. This is a distance great enough to reach the planet Mars.

If these voters value their Whiteness at 1,000,000 dollars then MCain's total distance is 474 million miles, which is almost five times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Barack Obama, with his now paltry by comparison sum of 23,295 miles worth of money, is running against the tide, uphill, with cement shoes on, after eating a bowl of cheap Stop and Shop pasta. This distance my friends in one hell of an obstacle, one that may be insurmountable. Imagine if you will, 5 million voters free to you, a cushion against your opponent. This is McCain's secret weapon. It isn't Palin, or ingenious commercials, or Rush Limbaugh. It is credit in the bank. It is white privilege in the bank...currency to use as a hedge against your opponent. Damning, yes. True, yes. But remember, knowledge is power. Now my friends, what do we do about it?


Joey said...

Smart point about the everyday value of white privilege.

drinkof said...

It is a smart point, but it's wasted on this topic. Here's the deal:
- There is no Bradley / Wilder factor, which does NOT theoretically count those who won't vote for a black man, only those who say they would, then don't. If it ever existed 2 decades ago, it doesn't now.

2 - Refusing to vote for a black man on that basis is morally indefensible and, in this case, dumb as a brick. It also doesn't matter at all. 100% of those who fall into that category already vote for Republicans.

3 - Obama is leading in the polls. Yeah, I know, should be by more.

4 - Obama is being underpolled by 4-5 points, based on undersample of newly registered voters, the bazillion young voters with only cell phones.

You heard it here!!

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

I disagree. The bradley effect may still very much be in play, as folks are still sorting out what happened in New Hampshire and Penn with hillary voters and independents and the reasons behind Obama's defeats.

2. this doesn't speak to the larger problem as recent data has pointed out that there are in fact voters in both parties who are not going to vote for obama and much of that is intuitively linked to racial animus and anxiety. the new research out of stanford hints at that.

3. according to research on vote choice obama should be way way ahead all things being equal. he may be up now, but how much will these fluctuating polls leans toward him? and if 6 percent or so of respondents are telling you they won't vote for obama and that his race "matters" I would say double that number because of social desirability effects.

4. to the main point, race has value and it is currency...this currency will help to decide in my opinion at least, against obama's winning in november.

5. and i don't give republicans and others a pass who say they won't vote for a republican so Obama's racial identity, and that their bigotry doesn't matter. this is important because they consistent have higher measures of racial animus and anti-black sentiment. they may not be captured in the 5 million i picked as a baseline, but those sentiments are mirrored by many independents, and that solid base of republican support that you can count on like a rock when faced with black candidate, is a telling part of the american race "problem".

good points, but i respectfully disagree.

obama loses by 5-7 percentage points come november...at least.

chauncey d

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

maybe not
now the only color if interest is the green - back. we will see

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Fantastic and brilliantly analytical article. You really broke it down in ways an average high school kid could understand. Breaking through the denial of racism is much harder, but we already know this. Keep up the great work!

chaunceydevega said...

@ All-mi-t

Green, as we are seeing with the economy is what matters in the end...that is a blessing a curse for black folks.


thanks for the love and support as always. you keep doing your thing too!

chauncey d