Racism Among Obama Supporters?

Over at zmag.org the historian, journalist, and activist Paul Street—who has recently published his book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics— has some interesting commentary on issues of racism in both the McCain and Obama camps.

Street points out some of the racialized reasons that some whites support Senator Obama, reasons and issues that get very little attention in mainstream media discussions. He quotes an exchange reported in the New York TimesCaucus Blog:

between white voter Veronica Mendive and white Obama volunteer Cathy Vance: Ms. Mendive: “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.” Ms. Vance: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are really more white than black really.”

First, here is the old worry that African Americans are not saying to white faces what they are really thinking, which in a racist system is not too surprising. African Americans do have to spend a lot of time and energy in their backstage settings recounting whites’ racist actions and figuring out how to counter them. But that is not what whites are worrying about when they think about the Black backstage. Whites seem to worry most about what Blacks might “do” to whites. The volunteer assures the voter that Obama is OK because of his white ancestry and socialization. This reasoning may well be one common way of thinking about Senator Obama among whites, and it is interesting that (to my knowledge) no one in or out of the mass media has researched this important political and racial issue.

Street then recounts another Times interview with someone who is apparently working for Obama:

According to Times reporter Adam Nossiter, Oaks is “pleased by Mr. Obama’s lack of connection to African-American politics.” Oaks spoke to fellow whites at a local church and with approval of how Obama “doesn’t come the African-American perspective – he’s not of that tradition. . . . He’s not a product of any ghetto.”

One reason that Senator Obama is getting some (many?) white votes, thus, is because they see him as “an exception to his race,” a very old notion that has been part of the white racial frame since at least the 17th century. He is seen as not fully “Black” in the negative sense that idea has in the white racial frame, especially since he was raised mostly by whites. And he does not have the “African American perspective,” which I would guess means that unlike veteran Black civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al. Sharpton, Senator Obama has been very careful (with the exception of his one Philadelphia speech) not to talk openly about the racial hostility and discrimination, the systemic racism, perpetrated by a great many white Americans.

In working on our book on “race” and the Obama campaign, Adia and I have discussed why Senator Obama has carefully avoided discussing civil rights issues and the venerable Black civil rights agenda, which includes getting the government to vigorously enforce U.S. civil rights laws—which it has not done. Presumably, he must do this to be elected.

A society founded in and still grounded in white racism means, among other things, that a Black candidate running in a predominantly white district or area (the entire nation in this case) cannot talk candidly about the continuing and deep impacts of racial hostility and discrimination against African Americans and other Americans of color—that is, he or she must still act in ways that please whites, at least a significant enough group of whites to be elected. He or she cannot talk about what may be the nation’s most serious problem.

Even then, a majority of whites are still hard to persuade. A check of recent polls indicates that in this last week Research 2000 found that Senator Obama leads Senator McCain significantly among all registered voters, but is way behind among white voters (52-40 percent split in favor of McCain). Gallup shows less of a divide, but still a 48-44 percent white voter split in favor of McCain.

Given that the economy is in a meltdown mode, that we have the most negatively regarded president in recent memory, that the Republican brand is in poor repute, that Senator Obama is extraordinarily capable and has run what is probably the best organized and technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, why is it that white voters are still strongly tilted to McCain?

What do you think about this?