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?


  1. JDF

    Excellent post. For quite some time now the media have spent time differentiating Obama’s manner and politics from those like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. The first night of the convention in Denver, for example, I recall at least one commentator on msnbc comparing the Obamas to the Huxtables. In their book Enlightened Racism, Jhally and Lewis found that whites who liked “The Cosby Show” did so because it was “proof” that blacks could achieve the American Dream without affirmative action simply by working hard and living in two-parent families. If Obama pulls this out, expect cons and even some white liberals to start talking about ending affirmative action.

  2. Joe Author

    JDF, good points, thanks. Yes, affirmative action has been pretty much eviscerated already, and it was actually created originally by white men under pressure from the civil rights movement, in the 1960s.

    The Jhally and Lewis book is a good one, and shows how whites use a figure like Cosby, Powell, or Obama as proof that all Blacks can be like them if they will just work harder, etc (and thus to argue against white racism).

  3. Thanks Joe, awesome job here of spelling out common white reactions to Obama. Some will vote for him so they can claim they’ve overcome racism, and yet they would never do so if he weren’t, in their eyes, “acceptably black.” So much for overcoming racism.

  4. nojojojo

    JDF, given that affirmative action primarily benefitted white women anyway, I don’t see much problem with its loss. What I’m more concerned about is that if Obama wins, the same whites who see him as “not really black” will nevertheless use his success as proof that racism is no longer a problem for black people, in that curious double-thinky way they so often seem to do, and never mind dismantling anti-racism programs — I think they’ll just want to stop talking about it, period. I think Obama’s election will dramatically increase white denial and resistance re: the inequities in our society.

    I’m still hoping he wins (and not just wins, wins by a landslide), but I’m also bracing myself for the fallout. I’m less scared of the rabid-racist Klan types than I am of the blissfully blind white liberals; the latter do far more to perpetuate racism than the former.

  5. Joe Author

    When racial oppression dies out, there will be not “white” or “black” anymore. But that will not come soon, as we whites benefit far too much to give up our power and privilege. Even Obama cannot speak out about racism today.

  6. Cathy Vance

    Hi, I am Cathy Vance, who has been criticized by many because of the comment I made during a canvass with NYT reporters along. I have to say, I was given very little notice that I would be going with the NYT reporters, and if you have ever been canvassing, you have to understand that you have only the normal amount of time to appropriately respond to a comment. Well, I am one of those people who always responds with a great comeback 24 hours after the comment has been made! I couldn’t very well call the women racist, and expect her vote for Barack. I am in the healthcare business, I understand responding to objections in a way that doesn’t make people mad. So I said the first thing that came to mind. Of course I could have done better, given 24 hours and a lot of thought, but I didn’t have that luxury. I think Barrack Obama is the best candidate to run for President since I have been voting (1980) and I am excited and thrilled to be part of this campaign. Sorry I don’t meet everyone’s expectations as a great volunteer, but I am doing what I can to make a difference in my community.

    Cathy Vance

  7. Why does this website constantly harp on racism in America, as if there were no racism in the rest of the world?
    I don’t think that America is any more racist than other countries.
    Of coursr,there are SOME bigoted whites, and they say and sometimes do awful things about blacks and other non-whites.
    But they are far from being a majority here.
    Don’t those who operate this website realize that the whole world is full of inequality,injustice,prejudice,mindless irrational hatred, oppression, cruelty,violence,brutality and slaughter, and has been this way for thousands of years?
    In fact,these things are far worse in amny other countries than in the US.Now,this is in no way to condone,let alone condone racists statements or acts which occur here, just to say that we are far from being the only country with racism.
    Different peoples all over the world have always oppressed each other,depending on who was weaker or stronger politically.

  8. Jessie

    Hi Cathy, Robert ~ Good to see you both here. Cathy, thanks for posting here and I think it’s a good thing to get involved. I don’t know how many of us would do well with a NYTimes reporter on our shoulder every step of the way.

    Robert, one person’s “constantly harping” is another person’s cogent, insightful critique, I suppose. Of course, there’s inequality and injustice around the world and that’s not the focus of the writing we’re doing here at this blog. Our focus is, as we say in our “About Us” page, on an “analysis of “race,” racism, ethnicity, and immigration issues, especially as they undergird and shape U.S. society within a global setting.” I agree that the U.S. is not the only country with racism and I do fairly regularly write about reports of racism in other countries and hope to do more of that once the U.S. elections are over. As to whether or not the U.S. is more or less racist than other countries, the research is mixed on this. The classic in the field is George Fredrickson’s White Supremacy, which compared apartheid-era South Africa and the U.S. and if I recall correctly, it was about even. Of course, then South Africa ended apartheid and had “Truth and Reconciliation” hearings, so perhaps that gives them the advantage.

  9. Leslie

    Why Obama and not Jackson?

    The comparison of Obama to The Huxtables is completely different than a comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. We are essentially talking about apples and oranges here. The media tends skirt around the heart of the issue because people tend to become unconfortable when issues of race are brought up.

    The personas of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton likely bring up historic, stereotypical images of the “dangerous black man” in white minds. Jackson and Sharpton are outspoken and articulate black men who have lived through the civil rights era. Let’s not forget what the civil rights era represents in many white minds–violence, Malcom X, assasinations, Black Panthers, radicalism, etc. (i.e. dangerous). Many whites do not have any idea of what its like to live without basic civil rights, and therefore may be unable to understand the message of individuals like Jackson or Sharpton. In a nutshell, they are too risky.

    On the other hand, we have the fictional Huxtables and the real Obama. By comparison, they have less emotion, less outspokeness on racial issues, and no direct civil rights era experience. This makes whites more comfortable. Whites are likely more willing to accept a Huxtable or an Obama because they do not seem “dangerous” or threatening. The quote above from Joe’s 10/18 post likely reflects this mentality. And, despite Obama’s well run campaign and moderate stance on many issues, it also may reflect the mentality of many of white McCain supporters.


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