The elongated Democratic presidential contest is forcing racial politics to the forefront. In Pennsylvania the racial divide could not have been starker. Hillary Clinton ironically enough has become the down scale white people's champion. Now that this racial door has been fully opened, it is worth looking more deeply at the white tribe and what is happening.
Barack Obama is right -- America is not a static society. There have been notable changes in racial attitudes in this country in the last fifty years. The overt racism that I saw as a youth in the Deep South has gone underground. It is no longer socially acceptable, except in very closed circles, to rail against blacks simply because of skin color. Obviously these overt racists will never vote for Obama.
The group that is more than likely going to decide the election in the fall is a group I call the Merely Prejudiced. They are not pathological in their hatred of blacks, but they are not entirely comfortable with black people or black culture. They tend be older, less educated, sit on the fringe of being truly middle class, and are not afraid to be quoted in a major newspaper saying, "this country ain't ready for a black president."
These are people who don't think about themselves as racists. In fact, I have heard this statement more times than I can count, "I am not a racist, but my Dad was. He hated 'em." The press, which loves stereotypes as much as the rest of us, calls them Bubba, Joe Six-Pack, Faded White Collars, Rust Belters, or Blue Collar Workers. The strange thing is, I have never heard these folks refer to themselves like this. They see themselves as typical middle class or working class people, nothing more, nothing less.
These folks tend to live in all-white environments, don't get misty eyed over the joys of multiculturalism and racial diversity, and are increasingly worried about the future, both economically and socially. They have spent much of their lives watching the world change. Every day that one of their kids or grandchildren comes home with another tattoo, finds another body part to pierce, brings another hip hop CD home, or goes to school dressed like a rapper, they are confronted with more evidence that life is changing. No amount of rudimentary economics will convince them that the global economy is a good thing. They don't trust big government or big business, and some of them know that big labor ain't all its cracked up to be either.
On TV they watch black anchors, black superstars like Michael Jordan, see OJ Simpson commit murder and get away with it, hear Oprah tell them to read more and Bill Cosby lecture the black community on personal responsibility. They get the fact that black people are "Moving on Up" to quote the theme song of The Jeffersons. (A TV comedy about a black middle class family from somewhere in the past).
What they don't get is what all of this racial and social progress has to do with them. "Yeah, they had it tough, so did we." "How much more do we have to give 'em to make 'em happy?" "Sure slavery was bad, but that was over a hundred and fifty years ago for Christ's sake" -- and on and on. Empathy isn't their strong suit.
These folks don't have the time or the luxury to worry about someone else, and therein lies Mr. Obama's problem. He talks about a Washington awash in lobbyists, a political system that serves the insiders but not the people. He talks about the power of the people to change their government from the bottom up. The changes he talks about fall on the very deaf ears of the Merely Prejudiced.
It's not that this group likes the political class. They don't. They understand that they are better educated, make a lot more money, get to take longer vacations, and don't have to worry about paying the bills. But their anger is visceral, and Obama is too cool, too smooth, and too polished. They genuinely would like to think that things can change for the better, but their life experiences continue to teach them that change may not always mean things get better for them.
And yet Barack Obama has forced his way into their lives. He has made every American stand up and take notice. He is galvanizing whites and blacks, he is winning all white states, white politicians are lining up behind him. He came out of nowhere to stop the Hillary Clinton campaign that was bound for glory. There is talk that he is going to be the first black president. He is now a superstar. Folks almost believe he is just a politician who happens to be black, even the Merely Prejudiced.
But along came the clips of Reverend Wright's tirade, and the wheels almost fell off the Obama train. His campaign was wobbling badly, but then Obama with both his masterful pen and his sincere voice put Reverend Wright in time and place. He reached out to whites and told them he didn't think they were all racists. He exhibited an understanding of race that is far beyond anything any American political figure has done in fifty years. With that one remarkable speech he probably has saved his chance to win the Democratic nomination for president, but at what price?
Can my group of Merely Prejudiced whites ever feel comfortable with a man who defends a virulently anti-American like Wright? Can they ever understand that the change that Obama seeks to bring benefits them? Can the oratorical skills of Barack convince them that he would really care about them? As good as Barack Obama is, and he is beyond good -- that is one heavy lift, as we say in the gym.
But there is hope for Obama. The one group of voters who are the most consistently Democratic are the down scale, white women that make up the core of Hillary Clinton's supporters and who also fit nicely into my Merely Prejudiced category. Once Obama wins the Democratic nomination, they will have to choose between an African American Democrat and John McCain. While their husbands, fathers, and boyfriends will find a home with John McCain, I think enough of these Merely Prejudiced women will be swayed by their party loyalty. No question, Obama will have to walk the racial tightrope, but that is the nature of race and politics in the United States. And yes, he will have to sing with all his might to the downscale white people's champion -- Hillary Clinton -- that great old Beatles song, "I wanna hold your hand."
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