THE BLOG
11/26/2012 04:49 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Whiteness in the Age of Obama

Recall the numbers: 59 percent of white voters supported Romney. More dramatically, 88 percent of his votes came from whites. One simple but plausible analysis suggested that Obama won a majority of white votes only in New England, New York, and Hawaii. His national share of the white vote fell by several points after four years in which Republicans, especially the Tea Party, worked relentlessly to be the party of whiteness.

As I've noted before (and so have lots of others), this was the barely-concealed meaning of Tea Party claims that Obama was not American, not constitutionally the president, somehow deeply alien. These ideas are so unmoored from reality that they have to be approached as symptoms, not positions. Race was also much of the meaning of tying Obama to food stamps, and of (barely less public) assertions that health care reform was a giveaway from white taxpayers to black dependents.

Those notorious maps showing the overlap between Romney states and the old Confederacy take on a grim extra plausibility when you consider that Obama seems to have taken less than 20 percent of the white vote in the core states of the Deep South -- Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. I'm reminded of the friend in West Virginia who told me, back in 1988, that one reason to support Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primary was that he could pick out his solitary vote when the local newspaper printed the results.

But consider: whiteness, like any other racial category, is a made-up thing. It is a matter of what people do, not what they are. (Social construction is the clunky academic name for this.) Like other made-up things, it changes. Obama's share of the youth vote in swing states like Virginia, Florida, and Ohio was so high that clearly, somewhere around age 30, a majority of white people started supporting the president. Romney's success with old people isn't just a matter of the fact that America used to be much more white. It's that white people used to be much more white -- in the Mitt Romney sense of white. Whiteness, too, is changing. What might it become?

There's plenty of reason to hope it might just go away. From the beginning, whiteness has been a power play, a way of defining oneself as obviously, implicitly superior: entitled to deference, closer to the heart of the nation, a real American. Much more than the national identities it consolidated -- English, Irish, German -- it was always defined by a palpable contrast, especially with African-American slaves and victims of segregation. As the boundaries of whiteness shifted to absorb Irish, Italians and those formerly black families that made the tragic crossing from "passing" to "being" white, it always took its meaning from what it was not, always depended on someone else's being underneath or outside.

But let's suppose for a moment that whiteness is not going away in our lifetimes, and those of us who are under 40 and (especially) who supported Obama will unavoidably redefine it. (By "us," I don't mean just people who get identified as white, but everyone who has to deal with whiteness as part of race in America, which means everyone, period.) How might we start thinking about this?

Some Irony about Ancestors

Above all, with a sharp sense of irony, because whiteness is nothing if not a study in American ironies. Ever since colonial Virginia cracked down on free blacks and helped make "white" and "free" synonymous, whiteness has been a claim on a mythic version of the country's history. When old WASPs like Teddy Roosevelt got all fed up about immigrant hordes, they lamented that the country was losing those citizens whose families remembered Gettysburg and Valley Forge.

As a descendant of a private who froze his feet at Valley Forge and another, his grandson, who got his eardrums ruptured at Gettysburg, I'm glad to say this is less important than the deep ironies that whiteness involves -- that any idea of race and any history inevitably involve. I take my own ancestors as an example because they are close at hand.

Thanksgiving reminded me that I drew the Wal-Mart Mayflower ancestor -- obscurely sourced, a little generic, and very widely distributed. Some Wikipedia author reckons that Richard Warren, a Londoner and signer of the Mayflower Compact, counts more than 14 million living descendants, including Sarah Palin -- that is, my cousin Sarah Palin.

Maybe, cousin Sarah (if you're reading this), there's a family trait of going to the extreme north and picking up extreme ideas. In the 1830s, one of Richard Warren's descendants, Hiram Chamberlain, was born in Monkton, Vermont, about as far toward Alaska as an American could get then. His education at Middlebury and Princeton convinced him that God favored slavery, and he lit out for Brownsville, Texas, where he ministered to slave-holding settlers at the first Presbyterian church in the Rio Grande Valley. When the war began, he became a Confederate chaplain. I once picked up a book of local history in a Texas tourist shop and happened on a remark from a parishioner, who found Hiram stiff and unsympathetic.

Hiram was my three-greats grandfather, and his family came pretty close to foundering on the wrong side of history. They were saved by my two-greats grandfather, an English-born Union officer who came through Texas late in the war, commanding a unit of black soldiers. Details get especially obscure here, but Hiram died soon after the war, and his daughter, Adelia, shows up next in New York City, married to the officer, who had enrolled at Columbia Law School.

I relish the image of the forces of emancipation and race-mixing riding down on the First Presbyterian Church of Brownsville like some other, more famous Horsemen, and carrying off the willing daughter of the already dying racial purist. The flavor of the whole thing is distinctly mythic, like Hermes retrieving Persephone from Hades to restore the spring.

It's tempting to imagine the officer, William James Harding, as Robert Gould Shaw, the colonel of the Massachusetts 54th from Glory, with a Hugh Grant accent. Nothing in his later life, though, suggests he was much of an idealist or had a heroic temper. He was a nondescript real-estate lawyer in Brooklyn; when he finally became a colonel himself, it was in the New York reserves, the forerunner to the National Guard. I suspect commanding African-American soldiers was the easiest way for a foreigner to get an officer's commission. The simplest explanation for his willingness to cross the color line is that he had an eye on the main chance.

Harding's social ambition is, in fact, the only reason that I know I belong to that not-so-exclusive club, the 14 million. The old officer commissioned research into his wife's ancestry, which gave his family a nice American pedigree, including lots of town selectmen and casualties of such nearly-forgotten conflicts as King Phillip's War (New England, 1675-78, more or less an open race war between settlers and Native Americans, in which a tenth of military-age male colonists died). The genealogy nearly disappeared when the family he had labored to build fell apart after the 1919 influenza pandemic killed his son.

So, there is the heroic legacy: the officer who acquired his fine American ancestry by stealing it from a white-supremacist zealot out in the desert, backed by a band of black men who must have been astonishingly brave to pass through south Texas then, even mounted and armed. (It must have been exhilarating, though, to be a former slave and ride, armed, against other slaves' masters.) It is strange and unsettling and altogether more interesting than the standard story of selectmen begetting selectmen that the officer later commissioned.

Some Irony about America

The irony is much more than personal: like a fractal, it reappears at every scale of American ancestry and race.

It's an acute irony that a Republican party that beats up on "entitlements" carries the legacy of the biggest entitlement of all -- white people's unearned title to the status of first-class American.

But claims on ancestry are more than welfare for status politics. Knowing your genealogy is itself a token of wealth and privilege. After all, we all come from old families, no new strains of humanity having colonized the planet recently. The trick has always been to be born into one of the few intact legacies, with the family bible and heirlooms that tend to come with a long history of property ownership and education. It's memory, not time, that makes an "old" family.
Failing that, the next option is my officer-ancestor's move, to spend some of your extra time and income digging through the records to assemble the memory that history has scattered. Genuinely intact family knowledge is a slightly wondrous thing, a stroke of both luck and privilege. The more common, reconstructed kind is like a new set of "old" furniture. With the rise of massive digital genealogical data, we should probably hope it becomes so common as to lose all cachet. I mean, really, Sarah Palin?

And yet. I prize these family stories, reconstructed though many of them are. I like them better for their ironies and strange details. Those don't keep me from feeling a special resonance around Plymouth, Valley Forge, etc. I wanted to tell them in this essay, partly to show their ironies, but also because I do like them, because I want to make them known. There's no way around it: this is claiming my little share of ancestral specialness, even as I while renounce it. There is an irony for you.

As best I can think about it, I'd like to drain those stories of any idea that they give the person who tells them some special standing. I'd like to drain that idea so completely that knowing about your Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War ancestors would become a version of kitchen multiculturalism -- the slightly inane but likable idea that what your grandmother cooked is the key to your "special" identity. Some people have latkes, some have idli dumplings, and some have black-and-white photos of a Gettysburg veteran, painfully posed before long-exposure cameras, his uniform cap bearing the letters "F.U." (I suppose it stands for "Federal Union." It has always taken me aback.)

Whose America is it?

But of course these last examples are different. They run back to the touchstones of civic identity, not just to what they ate at Plymouth. The Mayflower Compact was a quasi-constitutional document, a poignant thing to consider for a Constitutional Law professor like me. George Washington highlighted the republican idealism of the Revolution by performing Cato, a hit play about Rome's "last citizen," at Valley Forge; for all I know, my four-greats grandfather, James Purdy watched, or even performed. Lincoln's hope that the blood left at Gettysburg would produce "a new birth of freedom," tying the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence, with its pronouncement that "all men are created equal," helped launch the Constitution of liberty and equality that I teach today, so different from the old Constitution of slavery. James Purdy II (which I am fairly sure no one ever called him) probably left some of that blood.

But those details, attractive as I find them, have to be beside the point. There must be no such thing as an ancestral claim on national history. The best thing about American principles has always been that they promised universal reach: "all men." (Make that "all people," please.) The best concrete proof of this is that Frederick Douglass, the former slave, who poured "irony" on the pro-slavery Constitution, could claim the authors of the Declaration as ancestors of the most important kind -- chosen ancestors, whose legacy could be a Constitution with equal place for Douglass alongside his former owners. One of the crimes of whiteness is that it has always tended to make these principles specific, exclusive, mine. It ties the best in American ideas to the worst, by restricting it to just some of us.

This is what produces the impulse of the anti-Obama insurrection, the thought that this black man with a "foreign" name cannot really be President. In light of the ironies of our history and racial identity, it would be more plausible to say that he is the most convincingly American president ever, as Douglass is a more convincing descendant of the Revolutionary generation than any of my Civil War ancestors.

The main thing to be said for half-imagined, half-constructed shared identities -- which both race and country are -- is that they tie people together with some sense of obligation and shared fate. They are why many of us could be moved, in 2004, by Barack Obama's declaration that the problems of a Chicago schoolchild or an ailing grandparent were his, too, whether or not it were his child or his grandparent. They give us meaning, dignity, and burdens beyond the ways the market and the meritocracy dole out goods.

The most charitable thing you could possibly say for traditional white voters who supported Mitt Romney on semi-racial grounds is that some of them know what this kind of civic culture looks like in the predominantly white America they still think of as real, and cannot imagine it for the diverse, de-centered America that is growing now. Even if that is true, it only helps one to see exactly how, even taken in the most charitable light, they are mistaken. Insisting that an America you can recognize is the only legitimate America has always been what has, ironically, made the very idea of America seem illegitimate to its critics.

Race in the age of Obama

There are many ways to look at Barack Obama, a fact that has been both a strength and a weakness in his political career. One of those, one he invites and seems to believe, is that he is a man who made a pair of deliberate choices: to be black and to be American, to identify with both those traditions and to braid their hopes more tightly together. This is the conclusion of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and it has rippled through a good deal of what he has done and said as President.

That American identity is open to this kind of choice is one of the best things about it. That Obama's claim to stand at the center of American identity has inspired so much resistance is a sign of the value of that central place, of its being -- sometimes tragically -- worth fighting over.

All of us who live in Obama's age are, more or less explicitly, engaged in the same problem: how to orient ourselves to an American identity that no longer has its old center. The change, the beginning of overcoming the America-is-whiteness myth, is overdue and entirely right.
Maybe that identity will be more comfortably hybrid. American civic myth has always involved the fantasy of purity. The Pilgrims were righteous, goes the myth. So were the Revolutionaries. The Founders were wise and beneficent. The Constitution is full of moral truth. Our wars are good wars.

There is a strange half-rhyme between that fantasy of purity and the fantasy of race, especially the bad old idea that whiteness contains something special, rare, and pure -- an idea few will say in public anymore, but which still echoes in our racially divided politics. These myths had many victims, most obviously those whom they defined as not quite, or not at all, American. More subtly, they mutilated history itself. They cost everyone the chance at an honest start to understanding the present by appreciating the past.

I'm these reflections will seem idiosyncratic to lots of people. There is not much that is "typically white" about my standpoint, any more than the President is "typically black." But that is surely part of the point. American experience has always been fragmented, hybrid, ironic, and weird. If anything about my background is typical, it is probably the ironies, the way it braids the country's black and white histories, and the ways the family's official versions of its story have tended to leave those out. These facts, not just about someone else's family (say, the President's), but about all of us, and about the whole country, may finally have so much weight today as to be inescapable.

History's ironies have to be the starting point, not the enemy, of a civic culture worth having. Purity has never been real, and the idea of it has usually been the real enemy. I just hope my fourteen million cousins, and everyone else, can welcome one another's strange ancestors here in our common present. The change that's happening is not just demographic. It isn't that America is beginning to be everyone's country. It's that it has always been everyone's country, and that fact is harder and harder for anyone to deny.

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