Another section of presidential hopeful Barack Obama's speech on race that deserves attention is this one:
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Obama's cataloging of the point of view of working-class whites seems to be one of the aspects of this speech that has struck a chord with commentators. This is understandable, because it marks an interesting break with tradition. Circa now, reasonable people can agree that the practice of affirmative action has its flaws - this is even acknowledged by upwardly mobile blacks who don't want to be saddled with the suspicions that they aren't succeeding on merit. Nevertheless, affirmative action is defendable because it is rooted in an act of munificence - it aided minorities in surmounting economic obstacles that were founded in prejudice.
Nevertheless, throughout the rural south, the farm belt, and the rust belt of the Midwest, working class whites face similar obstacles to opportunity, and they seek a similarly munificent hand to ensure that their hard work will translate into prosperity. This has not been entirely lost on the Democratic party - indeed, in the wake of Bush's elections, liberals wondered why it was that these voters seemed to flock to Republican candidates whose policies worked to their detriment. The typical liberal cant on the matter was that Democrats needed to make an effort to "re-educate" these voters, and bring them along to the Democratic way of thinking.
But no amount of "re-education" is going to offset an appeal to these voters' core values. And Obama's broad acknowledgment of the economic plight of "working- and middle-class white Americans" seems to indicate that he has taken on the task of re-educating himself. In this section of the speech, affirmative action is a specter that fuels white resentment - "a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense." Obama makes the case that his candidacy will not be one of "re-education," but one in which the values of voters are harnessed to build a different Democratic coalition - based on economic common ground rather than racial difference.
Naturally, lots of conservative commentators have dismissed the speech, their observations making one wonder if they watched the oratory at all. Kathryn Jean Lopez remarked, "Any hopes anyone had that Barack Obama would...shake hands with Ward Connerly and really be a change died today." Lopez, clearly, wants some sort of "zero-sum" game to continue, for Obama to sabotage himself by throwing some group of voters under the bus in the name of defending himself. That people like Lopez have badly whiffed in their reaction shouldn't offend, however. Ultimately, they should worry about John McCain's electoral chances if a Democratic candidate manages to wrest away the vote of working-class whites by making a successful, sustained appeal to their values.