Hidden Wound: Understanding Working Class Votes

06/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The writing of W.J. Cash jangles and clashes against contemporary sensibilities, but reading Cash provides important keys to understanding why Barack Obama cannot connect with white voters in the South, in Appalachia, and in other areas where "working class" whites live. And the fault is not Obama's. Or his policies, which are startlingly beneficial to the majority of Americans. The fault is our own.

Critics dismiss Cash's iconoclastic, 1941 book, The Mind of the South, for promoting stereotypical views of southern whites. But, when those stereotypes become real in the privacy of the voting booth, it is simply foolhardy for any of us who care about this election to ignore them. When voters are willing to sacrifice their own self-interests and risk the future of this country to satisfy some deep-seated prejudice about who is capable of serving and who is not, it is time to probe deep into the wound of racism, find its roots, and try in some way to destroy them.

Knowledge and understanding will not guarantee the end of prejudice and bigotry, but they are a beginning. And understand this: Racism today is not the active and aggressive force that drove Jim Crowe; it is quiet, subtle, nearly silent. Most that carry racism deep in their psyche vehemently deny it, but absolutely believe in it. Moreover, almost paradoxically, most who carry racist views are good people; the racism hides deep, working its debilitating poison like a slowly spreading cancer. In The Hidden Wound, Kentucky author, Wendell Berry, explores racism and its pernicious effects on American culture. Of his own exploration, Berry says:

"If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown, the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society."

Naïve denial that race will play a large role in this election ignores what is obvious to any pragmatic thinker; race is the issue in this election. In The Content of Our Character, first published in 1991, Shelby Steele made this prescient observation.

"Race is a separate issue in American society, an entity that carries its own potential for power, a mark of fate that class can soften considerably but not eradicate."

We see this working powerfully in the current campaign. One of the most damaging criticisms of Barack Obama is that he is an elitist. He is a Harvard graduate, charismatic, accomplished, part of an emerging "nouvelle elite." He is, simply put, the best product of a continuing Civil Rights movement, and everything America could hope for in the ruins of George Bush's leadership coupled with the terrifying vision of a John McCain presidency. Still, all across America, too many white voters unconsciously respond to Berry's "hidden wound" and vote against a black man. Voting for John McCain over any Democratic candidate in this election is to invite certain disaster, but a predilection to walk happily into ruin is also present in the psyche of white, working class voters.

In the Detroit Institute of Art is a painting by Winslow Homer entitled, Defiance: Inviting a shot before Petersburg, Virginia, 1864. It shows a lone Confederate soldier strutting like a rooster on the breastworks during the siege. What the painting does not show is that a moment later, the soldier, for all of his courage, bravery and élan, died from a Union sniper's bullet between the eyes. I know this because the Confederate soldier, who was fifty-two years old, was the great-grandfather of a great friend of mine.

I think about this incident often when I try to find reason in the odd but predictable actions of the American working class. I understand that the character, driving a man with a farm, a family, and a future, to strut like a rooster in front of his mortal enemy, is living in the hearts and minds of many, and may be a more powerful force than doing what is right and good for America. I also understand that all of us, both individually and collectively, need to open our own "hidden wound" and try to heal.