Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The race card.

I've been thinking today about Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, their status in the Democratic primary elections, and what race may have had to do with Hillary Clinton's ability to hang on for this long. And I've come to the conclusion that Hillary was lucky that these states were placed at the points they occupied in the primary elections. What's more, I think it was race that made these rust belt states work in Clinton's favor.

It's been weird to me to watch the mainstream news media dance around concerns of race. They'll poll by demographics and make comments like "it's been tough for Obama to bring working class whites over to his side", but they don't really want to discuss why. They can show us numbers that indicate that race was a factor for the predominantly white electorate in those rust belt states, and that the majority of white voters who indicated that race was a factor in their decision broke heavily for Clinton. So they'll give us 2, and then give us 2 more, but we have to do the math and come up with 4 on our own.

4 in this example equals "racism". Yes, I said it, and yes, I think it's an important factor that needs to be discussed. I'm disappointed in the media for not engaging in discussion, but it's a sensitive topic, and I guess in a race that brought us Obama's Philadelphia speech on race relations, I can't really complain that it's being completely ignored. But if you ask me, not enough is being said.

So here's something I want to say: this presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain has the potential to be a referendum on American racism as it stands at this point in our history. Which is not to say that if John McCain wins, America is a racist country. But it is to say that the tone of the campaign, and the things that either do or don't bring Obama down, will tell us something.

Let's get back to the rust belt. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. All states that went for Clinton in varying amounts. James Carville's famous quote about Pennsylvania, that it's Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other, and Alabama inbetween, is appropriate here. One thing that that quote doesn't explain about that state is this--in Alabama, as in any Southern state, any former slave state, there's a relatively large amount of working class blacks. I am a resident of Virginia, and I've been seeing it all my life. I grew up in a tiny little town, and there were sections of the town that were populated by nothing but black people for blocks and blocks. Left over from segregation, no doubt--and hey, this was rural Virginia in the late 70s and early 80s; for all I know, de facto housing segregation was still in place. There were certainly towns and entire counties in the area around where I lived then, and where I live now, that were and are predominantly black. Charles City and King And Queen counties, both about an hour's drive east of my current location, are heavily black. Same with Calverton and Catlett, towns in the same county where I was born. You aren't going to find any places like this in Pennsylvania.

In states like Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, Obama's had no trouble handily winning the Democratic primaries. This is because he's had that rural working-class black population to count on. Bill Clinton may have inadvertently handed him this demographic with his tossed-off comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson in South Carolina, but whatever the reason, black voters have been going for Obama at margins of 90% or higher. In a state like Virginia, or North Carolina, this has been enough to more than compensate for the racist whites who turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Of course, here in the south, most of those racist whites have been Republicans for quite a while anyway, so Obama will have a huge influx of them to contend with in the general election, most of whom were voting for Mike Huckabee when the primaries were held down here in the South.

Of course, they might have all gone out to vote for Huckabee in the rust belt too, if it weren't for the fact that the Republicans had a presumptive nominee long before the Democrats got there. I don't know, I'm probably throwing around too many variables anyway. But my real point here is this--without racist whites being balanced out by black voters who break heavily for Obama, rust belt states will tend to favor Clinton. They'll also probably tend to favor McCain in the general election, assuming those people bother to go out and vote--and that's an open question. People who'd prefer Clinton to McCain, who more have a problem with Obama being a black president than his being a liberal, populist president, are probably not going to see John McCain as a much better option, and they may not bother to go out and vote at all.

Whatever they do, the fact is that it will be hard for Obama to carry rust belt states where racist white people are a significant factor, and unlike in the southern states where there are also plenty of racist white people, there aren't a lot of black people excited about getting to vote for a black president to balance them out. So Obama may lose rust belt states that are more likely to go in the Democrat column if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. There aren't that many states like this, though. West Virginia and Kentucky, sure. And Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio... OK, now we're done. If he loses them all, that's 65 electoral votes lost. That's not an insignificant number. But he probably won't lose them all, and Hillary Clinton probably wouldn't have won them all.

Regardless, whether Obama wins or loses these states, if he wins the presidential election--and he's certainly got a good chance, considering the mood of the electorate this year--it will prove something to everyone who questioned whether Obama was handicapped by his inability to win over a large amount of working class whites: that no one needs to court the votes of racist white people.

I'd really like to believe that, 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, that racism is a fringe belief, that nobody except whackjobs really lets someone's race influence their judgment of that person. I know I'm probably not right, and I know that the mainstream news media pretending that I am right, and that such a topic therefore need not be addressed, will not necessarily make it so. But I know that if Obama is to win the presidential election, it will have to be because racist white people who can't stand the thought of the president not sharing their skin color are not enough of a factor to give the election to John McCain. As I said back at the beginning, it's definitely possible for Obama to lose without racism having lost the election for him. But he can't win unless the forces of racism are too insignificant to stop him. And I do so want to believe that they are.

Time alone will tell.

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