On Racism, “Better Angels” and Self-Interest

The election is almost here and the news involving racism just gets more complex with each passing day.    While a few commentators wonder whether the country is truly prepared for a black President, while McCain says race will “play no part” in the election and Obama calls on the “better angels” and tries to reassure voters that they do not need to fear “secret racism.” The facile notion that racists will vote for McCain and those free of racism will vote for Obama is far too simplistic to hold much weight in this intricate knot of an election season (image from here).  Some of the complexity here around racism is illustrated in a thoughtful piece at Salon.com by James Hannaham, called “Racists for Obama”.   About half way in, Hannaham makes this provocative observation:

“The number of racists who aren’t voting for Obama isn’t as interesting as the number of racists who are. That he has any racist supporters at all points to a quality in bigotry that few people ever acknowledge — flexibility. It’s usually assumed that racism is all-powerful, that it alone will cause someone to vote against a black candidate. But blackness is just one possible plus or minus in a balance sheet with many entries. In an abysmal economy during which the white candidate’s campaign has seemed disorganized and erratic, common sense or shared values can prevail over gut fears about the color of a candidate’s skin.”

Hannaham then goes on to refer to the analogy (attributed to Democratic strategist Paul Begala) about asking a white voter, “How would you feel about a large black man kicking your door in,” they would say, “That doesn’t sound good to me… ”   But any reasonable person would change their response if they heard the additional information that “Your house is on fire, and the firefighter happens to be black.” Hannaham uses that to argue:

“Perhaps urgent circumstances require so much self-interest that racism can wait, at least until the crisis is over. Maybe this is why Obama’s poll numbers seemed to rise along with the volatility of the world’s financial markets.”

These are interesting times to try and understand the complexiites of racial politics.  I do hope that tomorrow people will call on their “better angels,” or simply their self-interest, and vote for change.


  1. jwbe

    This election could also help white people understand how we whites are also stereotyping each other in looking for simple answers who is racist and who is not, within a complex system where racism is much more than just ‘hate’ or ‘dislike’.
    I think that whites should finally start asking themselves who we are and that actions and reactions towards PoC alone won’t give an answer to find ourselves.

  2. M.

    I certainly agree that much about reactions to Obama among whites shows the “flexibility of bigotry.” Our psyches are very complex, and most whites hold positive views of certain black people while still being deeply influenced by racism or stereotypes in some situations. Nowadays, only a small share of whites hold views that are inflexibly racist to the point of automatically relegating every black person to second class status. This flexibility and nuance has too often been lost in accounts that emphasize (correctly) the continuing existence of racism, while losing sight of important chances in what racism is. Losing sight of this flexibility may be a weakness of analyses that confidently predicted Obama never had a chance!

  3. Dr. Kate Parks

    What is remarkable about this is that it is one of rare times in our history where whites did not vote using only their prejudices and racism as a guideline. Instead, they voted in their best interests as working and middle-class folks. Historically this hasn’t always happened and instead, the “Wages of Whiteness” prevail. It is critically important to acknowledge that this election does not mean that racism has been eradicated or that whites are tolerant across the board. Instead, as you all have said, it demonstrates just how complicated racism is. But it also shows that it is possible for people to put their racism on the back burner in order to vote for a candidate they feel really will give them the change they want and need. That is part of what makes this an amazing time in our history.


  1. Racism Review: On Racism, “Better Angels” and Self-Interest « Stop Dog Whistle Racism!

Leave a Reply