White Guys and the Prospect of an Obama Presidency

In this recent piece in the New York Times, Paul Krugman compares Richard Nixon’s political strategy to John McCain’s, in particular, the central idea that:

By exploiting America’s divisions — divisions over Vietnam, divisions over cultural change and, above all, racial divisions — he was able to reinvent the Republican brand. The party of plutocrats was repackaged as the party of the “silent majority,” the regular guys — white guys, it went without saying — who didn’t like the social changes taking place.

Krugman’s piece along with Rush Limbaugh’s (“it’s all about race”) reaction to Powell’s endorsement of Obama  has me thinking about white guys and the possibility of an Obama presidency.   When it comes to white men and this election, it looks like there’s a pattern, as Joe has noted here before.   Of course, some white men are supporting Obama.  Indeed, where I live in the liberal-bubble that is Manhattan, I see a fair number of white men each day wearing Obama buttons (image from here).

Seeing this emerging trend of white-guys-with-Obama-buttons in my neighborhood makes me ponder what the prospect of an Obama presidency might mean for racism and social change in the U.S.

I mean, maybe, just maybe, if the economy continues to tank, and if the voter fraud is held to a minimum, and if all the newly registered voters show up on election day, then we’ll actually have the first African-American president in our nation’s 400 year history.  And, then what? Declare that racism has ended, cue the hallelujah chorus and close down the blog, perhaps?   If Obama wins this election maybe it just proves the point that I’ve misjudged white guys.  Maybe white guys really do want social change after all.  I mean, Christopher Buckely has endorsed Obama and he’s about as white as it gets.

Perhaps.     But, let’s look at some data and see what we know about white guys and whether or not I might have misjudged them.

Survey & Interview Data. If you ask white people if they hold overtly racist attitudes, they’ll tell you that they don’t.   There’s lots of survey data that shows a decrease in the percentage of white people in the U.S. who say they hold explicitly racist views. And, given sociologists love of the survey data, way too many discussions of racism stop right there unfortunately.  It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t give a full enough picture of what’s going on with white people and race, and in particular white guys.   However, if you ask white people in the “backstage” (or private settings) what they really think, they reveal more. A study of 626 journals kept by white college students at twenty-eight colleges in the United States revealed that young white people think and speak in overtly racial, if not racist, terms.  And, if you ask black people – even middle-class black people – if they’ve experienced racism, you will learn that this is commonplace.

Housing. Racial segregation in housing continues to be a form of American Apartheid, as Massey & Denton explain in their award-winning sociological research.  They argue quite convincingly that the fundamental cause of poverty among blacks is residential segregation.   The mechanisms of this housing segregation operates at both the individual level – when white real estate agents steer them blacks into the black neighborhoods and tell blacks that  lots in the white areas are sold or quote them inflated prices, and when white residents flee the few black neighbors who manage to get into predominantly white neighborhoods – and at the institutional level, as the resulting decrease in the tax base and increase in the crime rate cause the process of ghettoization to begin again.   This pattern of racial segregation in housing lays the groundwork for other forms of discrimination and inequality.

Education. So, for example, in the affluent, suburban (Long Island) Manhasset, where 80% of the students are white, the spending is over $20,000 per pupil, in contrast to New York City where the proportion of white students is 15% and the spending is around half that, $10,000 per pupil (“School Funding in Selected School Districts in the New York City Area,” Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). While money does not guarantee a quality education, it can and does influence a variety of educational outcomes, like graduation rates and likelihood of going on to college.  Teachers act as powerful gatekeepers in deciding – often at very early ages – which students are “college bound” and which are “bound for jail.” Not surprisingly, it is black and brown students, and predominantly young boys, who at 10, 11 and 12 years old, are described by white (predominantly female) teachers as “bound for jail,” (see Ann Ferguson, Bad Boys, University of Michigan Press, 2000). The flip side of that is that white boys, even those of mediocre academic ability, get access to elite educations.  Of course, this inequality contributes to two very different pathways: one toward employment, income and perhaps eventually wealth, the second toward unemployment, poverty and incarceration.

Employment, Income & Wealth. White people are much more likely to be employed, and to earn more in those jobs, than blacks or Latinos. Among whites, men are more likely to be in full-time employment than white women.  Not surprisingly given these preconditions, white guys out earn all other race/gender groups pretty significantly. In 2006, the unemployment rate in New York City was 4.9% — the lowest rate in years. Yet, despite this relative prosperity, blacks (7.4%) and Latinos (6.1%), still experience recession-level unemployment rates (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report).  And, this trend exists at the highest levels of corporate America.  According to William Domhoff, a leading sociologist on the subject of the corporate elite,  although corporations were under pressure to diversify their boards beginning in the 1960s, and picking up real steam in the 1980s, in terms of adding women and people of color,  yet, most corporate directors are white males (Zweigenhaft & Domhoff, 2003, Chapter 7; Zweigenhaft & Domhoff, 2006; Zweigenhaft & Domhoff, 1998).

Unemployment, Poverty & Incarceration. As Jeffrey Reiman has so persuasively argued in his book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, being poor is a major risk factor for incarceration in this country.   Race intertwines with this economic pattern in ways that call on both institutional and individual racism, and plays out in New York City and state in pernicious ways.  In a 2008 study by Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small, an attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” (.pdf), finds that between 1997 and 2007, 52 percent of the suspects were black, 31 percent Hispanic and only 15 percent white. This sort of systemic racism in arrest and incarceration rates is rooted in policy-level racism in legislation such as the Rockfeller Drug Laws. These laws require harsh prison terms for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, and are named for Governor Nelson Rockfeller of New York, from the wealthy robber-baron family, who passed these racist laws in 1973.   Who benefits from prison economics? (.pdf) In fact, prisons provide few economic benefits to local communities.  Instead, the main benefits that accrue from the era of mass incarceration go to white male politicians in the form of votes.

White Guys & an Obama Presidency. On the face of it, there seem to be a lot of social advantages to being a white guy.  Yet, it seems that as a group, white guys are plagued by anomie.  Even as their income, education and occupational prestige are at all time highs, white guys are at higher risk for suicide than ever before, while suicide rates for blacks are declining.

Of course, some white guys will vote for Obama and wear their Obama buttons proudly while racism continues to play a role in voting behavior and political-button-wearing.   But voting behavior and the political-button-wearing are relatively small data points in a much larger, more complex picture (parts of which I sketched out above) about racism and racial inequality in the U.S.  While this campaign may be viewed by some on the left as a referendum on the intractability of racism,  it’s not the end of this particular system of oppression.   Come November 4th, I hope we’re all celebrating an Obama victory and an end to the long nightmare of the conservative movement.   If that happens, it will be an incredible victory for social progress and for people that care about all forms of equality, including racial equality.

And yet, even if there is an Obama victory and all the white guys start wearing Obama buttons, there is almost nothing in any of the policies or speeches that suggest an Obama presidency will take any significant action to dismantle structural or individual racism or racial inequality (despite fears on the right).  What I predict will change the most about racism under an Obama presidency is that the white guys wearing the Obama buttons will refuse to take racism seriously.


  1. Drew Cottle

    The last paragraph is the most telling, one, I think. If Obama is elected, many people who maintain white privilege will be able to say “see, we’re done!” (because they, after all, have the privilege of marking the finish lines) and the struggle for change will be buried even further under the ideas of “class” and income. Well, Obama being elected might not help those who still have to live and work as part of an “underclass”. Someone somewhere will be very clever and coin some phrase along the lines of “Obama blacks”, like they used to talk about “Cosby blacks”, and those education statistics will not change.

  2. Folks, Obama’s mere nomination has already caused serious white guy applause and widespread dismissal of racism. I suppose if he should go on to lose it will re-stoke the racism cauldron, but white guy extraordinaires like Rush and Buchanon have pointed to the nomination as racism’s final nail in the coffin.

    Great piece Jessie. And it does make one wonder what it all means. In a real way it means everything and nothing vis-a-vis racism. We could point to the undeniable fact that a black person is president, yet at the same time that president, were he not recognized, still would have cabs passing him by on 2nd avenue.

  3. Jessie Author

    Hey Drew, Mordy – thanks for your comments. Drew good to see you here, and I think the phrase that’s already floating around out there is “Obama kids” (I first saw it used by John McWhorter, but I’m not sure if he coined the term). Mordy, I think you’re right that there’s “widespread dismissal of racism,” and at the same time, Obama’s election marks a watershed. It’s “both/and,” not “either/or,” and that’s part of what makes understanding racism in the post-civil rights, Obama-kids era so challenging. I guess we’ll keep the blog up even if he gets elected. 😉

  4. Schiffon

    I agree with Drew that the rub is in the truth of the last paragraph. But, there has always been a “widespread dismissal of racism”. When my ancestors were deemed sub-human and enslaved in this country, there was a denial that the injuries they suffered were legitimate. Given that, I am not at all surprised that Obama’s historical rise is cited by some as evidence of the death of racism. This is just more of the same.

    I have never witnessed much “majority group” tolerance for the topic of racism. Let’s be honest, when we talk about institutionalized racism we are having a conversation about privilege. When you add the lies of this being a system based on meritocracy and self-determination it becomes very difficult to get anywhere meaningful on discussing the reality of privilege. If you won’t acknowledge privilege, you will have difficulties appreciating race as a strategic tool to secure that privilege.

    I will also mention that I believe Obama’s apparent multi-racial background make Obama more palatable to “White Guys”. Holding all other factors constant, do you think pitching the Obama presidency would have been a harder sell if Obama was the son of a single, black mother? Do you think being partially rasied by his white maternal grandparents helped to build a commonality for Obama?

  5. Jessie Author

    Hey Schiffon ~ great to see you here! 😉 I agree about the “majority group tolerance” for discussions of racism. I see a lot of this in rush to dismiss the so-called “Bradley effect,” and other evidence of racism in the campaign by many white liberal bloggers. I’ve been doing this awhile and I just don’t get white people’s reluctance to discuss racism. I agree, too, that Obama’s biracial background – and the importance of his white grandparents – has eased the mind of a lot of white people.

  6. Stephen


    I have some questions that are genuine. They are not meant to be condascending in the slightest.

    -What is your goal?

    -How does racism stop you from reaching your goal?

    -How does discussing racism allow you to reach your goal?

    And most importantly…

    -Are you strong enough to acknowledge success once you have reached your goal?

    If you spend some time with these questions and sincerely contemplate them, then Thank You. I would appreciate it if you shared your thoughts with me.

  7. Jessie Author

    Hi Stephen – thanks for your sincere questions. Given the limits of text-based communication I’m not sure I completely understand your questions, but I’ll give it a try.
    -What is your goal?

    By this question, I assume you mean, what’s the goal of the blog? The goal of the blog is covered in the “About Us” page, but I’ll add that in here again:

    “…to provide a credible and reliable source of information for journalists, students and members of the general public who are seeking solid evidence-based research and analysis of “race,” racism, ethnicity, and immigration issues, especially as they undergird and shape U.S. society within a global setting.We also provide substantive research and analysis on local, national, and global resistance to racial and ethnic oppression, including the many types of antiracist activism.” Of course, like at any blog, those of us who write here share a particular point of view, which might best fit under the umbrella term “critical race theory.” That’s sort what blogging is, news, plus a point of view. Here, we try to add scholarship – primarily social science research – to the mix of news and opinion.

    The larger activist goal, of course, is ending racism. So, this blog is a what some might call a “scholar-activist” project.

    -How does racism stop you from reaching your goal?

    I’m not sure that it does, but then maybe I don’t understand your question. I think that racism is a corrosive influence in American (and global) society, and that the persistence of racism stops lots of people from achieving any number of goals.

    -How does discussing racism allow you to reach your goal?

    Again, I’m not sure I’m understanding your question – but if what you’re asking is, “how does discussing racism help eliminate it?” I can answer that question. (As an aside – this is a question I’ve been asked a lot about my research on white supremacists, especially from white liberals… not suggesting that describes you, I’m just saying, this is who usually poses this question. But, I digress.) In my view, it’s an important, worthwhile and, indeed, crucial task to dismantling racism – is to first recognize it, name it, identify it, call it out for what it is. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

    And most importantly… -Are you strong enough to acknowledge success once you have reached your goal?

    Interesting question, Stephen. Why most importantly? And, why strong enough? Sure, if racism ended tomorrow (or, on Nov.4th), I think I’d be plenty strong enough to say, “you know, what? This has all changed, racism’s over, let’s talk about something else.” I just don’t see it, though.

    Does that answer your questions? Thanks for asking.

  8. Seattle in Texas

    Very interesting–(racism will be around for at least, at least, three more generations at minimum I think…and even that is a very unrealistic estimate at the lowest possible end even with the greatest of wishful thinking–just what I think)….

  9. Stephen

    Hey Jessie, how often do you write on this blog? Racism is a topic that I am very enthusiastic about and I have a lot of very good thoughts so I have been checking to see if you’ve responded several times per day. If you are only able to write a couple times a week or whatever, that’s totally cool. I’d just like an idea of your availability so my expectations can be in-line with reality.

  10. Jessie Author

    Hey Stephen, sorry to leave you hanging. I write here a few times a week. I didn’t mean to not answer your question above, I just didn’t know how to respond to your question about racism as a ‘symptom,’ or a ‘reaction’ rather than a cause. Perhaps you can elaborate.

  11. Stephen

    No worries. And No Problem, let me ellaborate… I think an accurate analogy is a broken arm. In the analogy, the sharp pain is racism. The broken bone is the cause or problem. The pain is a symptom of the broken bone. My epiphany is that racism is a symptom of a cause, not the cause itself.

    To continue the analogy, the doctor treats the broken bone and the sharp pain is indirectly stopped. The doctor does not give the patient a novocaine shot and declare the patient healed.

    In your response to my 3rd question, which asked why discussing racism is beneficial to the cause, you said that it is important to “first recognize it, name it, identify it, call it out for what it is. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.” First, I cannot aggree more with the logic of what you said. My second point, and the purpose of my comment about Racism being a reaction, is that I think you have not identified the correct problem.

    I hope this adds some clarity. I can write pages but I am going to stop here, for this entry, to ensure that we move one step at a time on this journey of ending racism. Do you have any thoughts to share now? Or am I still unclear?

  12. Jessie Author

    I think I understand your point, Stephen, which if I were to rephrase it is that critique is important but racism isn’t really a problem that’s worth a critique these days, that it’s a residual symptom of some other underlying cause. Yeah, I hear that a lot these days. And, it’s a newer version of a very old Marxist argument that racism is “epiphenomal” while class is the “real” cause of (all) oppression. I understand the argument, I just don’t agree with it. I think this is just one of those points that we’ll have to agree to disagree on.

  13. Stephen

    I’m not familiar with the Marxist argument. However, I suspect that we do not need to agree to disagree. I’m going to think about this and then I’ll share some thoughts. I appreciate your attention, by the way.
    And Adia, that is the primary question. I think there is an answer but I have to think about it. Do you have any ideas?

  14. Seattle in Texas

    Stephen–may I ask a couple of questions to you, if you don’t mind?

    1. What do you think about multiculturalism?

    2. What do you think about Labor Unions?

    3. What is your position on Freedom of Speech?

    4. What is your take on Affirmative Action?

  15. Stephen

    Sure, Seattle in Texas. Let me think…
    1. Multiculturalism is required for the human race to reach its potential.
    2. I understand why labor unions exist and that reason is a good/real reason but I also believe there is a danger that exists within labor unions. Labor unions are powerful. Where there is power, there is the opportunity for corruption and misuse.
    3. Freedom of Speech is vital.
    4. Affirmative Action is the wrong approach to a real problem.

  16. Stephen

    I have a question for you Jessie. It goes back to 1 of the 4 I originally asked. I asked what your goal was. In the article at the top of this page there a lot of statistics. If black people became statistically equivalent to white people, would that be sufficient?

  17. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you Stephen. There is a great reading list posted above that I think might get at the answer to your big question–specifically, the Systemic Racism text would be the best one to read first in my opinion.

    I have other questions, but may I ask why you believe Affirmative Action to be the wrong approach and what alternative(s) you would suggest in current times in the U.S.?

  18. Seattle in Texas

    and Stephen, if I may, I always recommend Raphael Ezekiel’s work–very direct author who illustrates how whites prey on, twist, and manipulate the minds of less privileged whites for their own benefits, gain, and so on–while promoting hateful divisions between people based on dangerous conceptions of race and so on. You want to become antiracist–there are a couple of great sources.

  19. Jessie Author

    Stephen, you said: In the article at the top of this page there a lot of statistics. If black people became statistically equivalent to white people, would that be sufficient? Those statistics are just measures of racism and racial inequality. If the goal is ending racism, then seeing those numbers shift so that blacks and Latinos and Native Americans and Asians and whites had reached parity on a variety of measures might be a good first step. We’re not there yet.


  1. Racism Review: White Guys and the Prospect of an Obama Presidency « Stop Dog Whistle Racism!

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