More Examples of White Privilege in Election ‘08

With this election season (finally!) drawing to a close, people are starting to speculate that Obama will win. Every time I start getting hopeful, though, I remind myself not to get too comfortable. After all, this is still America, a country grounded in slavery, genocide, and freedom of opportunity, speech, and religion only for a few, not for the masses. Centuries after America’s beginning, we are still a nation profoundly shaped by racial inequality. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock’s metaphor for this: “if you’re playing a game with a white guy, and you have six and the white guy has five, the white guy wins.” Right now, Obama has six. But the white guy with five could still win.

Despite Obama’s superior ground game, campaign management, advantage as the challenger after eight years of Republican rule, record levels of dissatisfaction with the current president and direction of the country, and even the dramatic financial collapse that precipitated his lead in the polls, white privilege continues to shape this campaign and could determine the final outcome of this election. The last examples I gave of this considered whether Malia Obama could be an unmarried, pregnant teen and get the same response that Bristol Palin has, or whether Barack Obama could have left his wife (after she was critically injured in a near-fatal car accident) for a younger, wealthy heiress without facing constant criticism of his morals and ethics.

Here are some other examples:

  • Imagine that in the presidential debates, Obama initially refused to look at or even acknowledge John McCain’s presence. Imagine that Obama seemed almost visibly angry at even having to debate McCain. Would this election still be relatively close?
  • Imagine that Obama had graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at a military academy. Better yet, imagine that he had attended five schools over the course of six years before graduating. Would anyone at all still consider these acceptable qualifications for seeking office?
  • Imagine John McCain getting an endorsement from a major, credible Democratic figure who was well known for his expertise in economic policy (one of McCain’s weak spots). Would anyone have attributed this to race and argued that this figure only endorsed McCain because they were both white?
  • Imagine that Obama, instead of Rep. John Murtha, argued that certain parts of Western Pennsylvania were racist. Would it be considered a simple admonition of truth, or would it be a blasphemy akin to Michelle Obama’s statement that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really, really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback?” Or, as this statement was generally edited to read, “for the first time in my life I’m proud of my country.”
  • Finally, imagine that Barack Obama was trailing in some polls by a 5-10 point lead (depending on which poll you look at), when a story surfaced in the New York Times that long ago, Michelle Obama had become so addicted to painkillers that she began stealing them from her charity foundation. Would Obama still be behind by only 5-10 points?

Race has shaped this campaign since its onset, and it seems clear that it will play a role in its outcome. I hope that on Nov. 4, white privilege doesn’t determine the outcome of this election. I will be discussing this issue and more on the show Meet the Bloggers, which airs Friday, Oct. 24 at 1pm.


  1. M.

    Interesting post, but I personally don’t find these hypotheticals convincing, with a few exceptions I spell out below. Specifically, I really doubt that Obama would have been hurt at all by graduating from the bottom of his class at a military academy. If anything, it might help him by combating the “elitist” image that has been a bit of a problem for him with the white working class. Military credentials are almost always a plus for American political candidates. Ivy League credentials are not. Likewise, I doubt anyone would care much about a long-ago painkiller problem for Michelle. Recall that Barack himself has long admitted to youthful indiscretions with drugs (in his memoir) and that has not become a problem for his campaign. And I doubt this “looking” and “seeming angry” thing would much hurt Obama. I think you are right that Obama calling voters racist would have been much more of a problem for him than if McCain did so, and you’re right about the Powell comparison.
    Maybe rather than just assuming these would work different for Obama, we need a bit more analysis of why that would be the case? It seems like the same assumptions driving the assumed responses of white voters in this post are the assumptions that have caused writers on this site (a few months ago) to confidently predict Obama did not ever have a chance. It is looking like those assumptions about the intractability of white racism now will be proven at least overly simplistic.

  2. Excellent points. Imagine too if his campaign decided to:

    -select an unknown radical left-wing, Black woman as VP nominee (not even one with the baggage this one has)
    -Outfit her in $150,000 worth of clothes paid for by the campaign
    -Pay her hair stylist (good god this one would have drawn the most outrage) $10,000 for 2 weeks work
    -Pay her make up artist $22,800 for 2 weeks work
    -Have a uniformed, armed Black Militant introduce him at a campaign appearance

    and that is just in the last month or so. Double standard doesn’t seem to go far enough. We need a new term for it.

  3. adia

    M, Mordy, thanks for your comments. M–predictably, I disagree with your points that Obama could have a history of substandard educational performance, rage issues, and that Michelle O. could have a history of painkiller addiction and stealing from her own charity without it affecting Obama’s success. I think these would play into racial stereotypes that would have been easily exploited and used to discredit him much earlier in the primary season. However, to your point, it is worth acknowledging that the Ayers/socialism/terrorist thing doesn’t *appear* to be sticking, and those memes also are well aligned with the same racial stereotypes.

    I will be the first to say that I did not accurately predict Obama’s success in either the Democratic primary or in the general election, and did not expect that he could or would win. (Of course, he hasn’t yet, and I’m not taking his win for granted, but I also didn’t anticipate that he would be this close.) While I didn’t think he could/would win, I wanted to be proven wrong–in fact, can’t think of anything else that I’ve wanted to be wrong about this badly. 🙂 This is a case where I am definitely happy to be mistaken, and should this election turn out the way polls, pundits, and analysts are predicting, I will gladly acknowledge that I overestimated the extent to which white racism would hinder Obama’s chances. I would still like to say, though–and I think this is a point many of the other bloggers here have also made–that an Obama presidency would mean we were wrong that white racism would prevent him from winning the election, but that our arguments that racism is still embedded in many sectors of our society and results in unequal opportunity for people of color still stand. Obama’s win would be an enormous step forward, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I also fear that people will mistake his win for the end of racism, rather than the beginning of what could be the end. America has a history of two steps forward, one step back, when it comes to social progress; if we pretend Obama’s win trumps all the ways racism is still embedded in society, we’ll be taking that step backwards when we have a great opportunity to continue moving forward.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    A great discussion above–I just wanted to suggest to M., that perhaps the GOP has decidedly not brought up previous youthful drug experimentation (how ever one wants to phrase it) because, afterall, the Republican Party is the “white” party…. Do they really want to go there??? Is it still snowing on Wall Street by the way? I hope even all the flurries are gone now. Boy, and their “War on Drugs”…will stop here….

    And, the white racism thing–it’s still going to be around. And, what about, perhaps “colorblind racism”, as well as other types of racisms? Just a couple of side thoughts….

  5. Seattle in Texas

    Plus another thought experiment might be with thinking about what politics would look like right now, had Clinton won the primaries. I think (obviously) Obama has been running a very ethical campaign and has been choosing his battles wisely. And the bottom line is, he’s got genuine class–which very few politicians have.

    If Clinton would have won, she probably would have had to also be selective of her battles to a greater or lesser degree. Though, I do believe she would have directly addressed many of the issues noted above head on–if not aggresively (she would have had the freedom to do so, just by virtue of her whiteness as far as I’m concerned). (and I don’t know what the Clinton/Palin dynamics would have quite looked like?) This could be good and bad. But I think it would have ended up working against her in the long run because people are tired of that type of campaigning–they want to know what the candidates are going to do for them. But Clinton’s whiteness would have allowed her more room to take an offensive position on the issues related to Republican candidate and his running mate…at least I think. Plus, I’m pretty certain there would have been a much lower voter turn out rate (not as many people can find a way to some how relate or connect to her–she’s closer to the center too). It would have been quite different, I think potentially leading to another Republican victory this nation cannot afford…. Hmmm…. (but with that, it might also be seen the role race plays, or would otherwise, play in the races)

    Obama/Biden 08′

  6. M.

    Aida, I appreciate the tone of your comments, and I agree with most what you say at the end that an Obama win would not mean that racism has been vanquished as an important social force. On Michelle, I don’t think this would matter too much for Obama because I don’t think spouses almost ever have much impact on final election tallies unless a spouse “problem” pretty directly implicates their spouse who is on the ballot.

  7. adia

    M, I see your point. Thanks for your comments. Seattle, I am inclined to agree w/ your points about Clinton, esp. given the way Palin has been very aggressive in her statements/attacks. One thing I’ve wondered, though. If the Democratic National Committee had manipulated things so that Clinton “won” the nomination even after it was clear that Obama had followed the rules and won legitimately, do you think McCain would still have picked Palin? Or would he possibly have picked a black VP–someone like Michael Steele, for instance–in a similarly transparent attempt to appeal to angry black voters?

  8. Seattle in Texas

    I was wondering the same thing…I think more than likely he would have selected a different running mate…though can see how he still could have selected Palin. I just know current times and the future would look much different. (and in terms of the primaries, I think many of us did have very real fears with relation to manipulation in the DNC–I am pleased with how everything has turned out so far, and with the Clinton supporters–many have come to support Obama and have been working very hard for the campaign–many investing as much time and resources in the Obama’s campaign as they would have for Clinton, has she won–so, much to be thankful for–it’s been an incredible team effort nationwide). I think we are witnessing amazing and exciting times, but I think there is still so far to go…. But smiles for now!!! And celebrations to be had on Nov. 4th!!! (or 5th)

  9. Had Clinton won i tend to think McCain would have chosen a different running mate. He has been quoted as saying this pick was a cold political calculation, and i have the think the numbers would have been different had Clinton won. There is no telling who he might have picked.

    Despite the recent polls showing Obama to be comfortably ahead i think we all better wait until 11/4 before we count our chickens. Chris Rock’s message rings loud.

  10. Seattle in Texas

    Mordy, I so totally agree with you on there’s no telling what he would have done.

    And I think we all are sitting mighty tight right now, many working when we can, etc. But with all honesty, my mind is just not allowing me to think of what the alternative would look like–both immediately and long-term…. And with that, am just enjoying the beautiful lead while cringing when I hear of voting issues (the 10,000 Teamsters voters–though, thankfully can still vote Nov. 4th…hopefully the polls and time will allow, 10,000 ballots that have to be transferred by who knows who because apparently the fill in bubbles don’t work with their machines, Jed Bush being the usual **** he is, and on and on and on). But, I can say, in terms of early voting both here in Texas and in Washington State–things are (or at least seem to be) going very smoothly…. So, think good thoughts when such oppotunities arise…that way when Obama’s win is announced, less negative energy would have been wasted on otherwise excessive unnecessary worrying that the GOP thrives on (and I do say that as I too hold my breath…). But thinking about alternative outcomes is just too ugly and energy draining…. Obama supporters have to (and I believe will) manifest the collective self (or social?) fulfilling prophecy into reality, with continued work through Nov. 4th–it can be done! 😀 And well beyond (and I think things such as the dispute between McCain and Palin on whether robo calls should be done was great entertainment…so, finding laughs where we can is also so important to get through the final days…).


  1. Racism Review: More Examples of White Privilege in Election ‘08 « Stop Dog Whistle Racism!

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