In the exit polls from Kentucky, racism once again played a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming victory. The racism revealed in Kentucky (where 17% of the voters were whites who said they voted against Obama partly because of race) ranked a close second to last week’s vote in West Virginia, where 19% of the voters fit this criterion (more than any other primary).
Here’s my theory. High concentrations of racist views create a culture of racism in a community, and even an entire state, what I call a racist tipping point: In areas like Kentucky and West Virginia, high levels of racism and the lack of countering forces reached a point where racist messaging (such as the Muslim rumor nonsense) spreads widely and is believed.
It’s possible that similar levels of racism exist in other populations, just waiting to be triggered by events. It’s possible that whites in other states are simply better taught how to conceal their racism, even though it still lurks beneath the surface. But I believe that the willingness of so many whites in Kentucky and West Virginia to admit their racism openly reflects a more powerful culture of racism that dominates in these states. With a very small black population, and few white progressives who are willing to speak out against racism, these racist communities reach a tipping point.
Obama’s substantial victories in many heavily white states (such as Oregon, Vermont, and Iowa) show that it’s not race, it’s racism. These states reflect a different political culture where openly expressing racism is less accepted. Kentucky and West Virginia are the worst of all political worlds for Obama: states on the border of the South, but lacking the reality of integration found in the deep South. The demographics of these two states (very old, and poorly educated), make it less likely for them to experience contact with people of other races. It’s notable that Obama also did poorly among white voters in other Southern states, but fewer of those white voters expressed the kind of racism (for example, only 6% of the voters in Georgia were racist).
It’s also notable that racism in these states seems to be separated from sexism. The sexist vote was only 3% of the total vote. The people who voted for Clinton based partly on her gender constituted 13% of the total vote. Gender-based voting helped Clinton gain approximately 10 percentage points in Kentucky. Race-based voting cost Obama 13 percentage points in Kentucky. So identity-based voting accounted for most of the margin of Clinton’s victory.
In all of the media analysis about Clinton’s overwhelming victories in Kentucky and West Virginia, there’s a strong desire to avoid talking about racism. The pundits talk about the "white working class" rather than the "white racists." The two are not the same; plenty of white working-class folks oppose racism. And most of Clinton’s supporters aren’t racist. But we’re simply in denial if we imagine that racism is not a factor in these elections. Credit to Chris Matthews for at least broaching the subject on MSNBC tonight, as he noted these exit poll numbers and even asked, "Has Hillary spoken out against racial prejudice recently, or just gender prejudice?" Meanwhile, Joe Scarborough declares, "This is not so much about race."
One particularly strange column about race appeared by Meghan Daum in the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune. Noting that Barack Obama ranks #8 on the humor website Stuff White People Like, Daum concludes that the white working class supporters of Hillary Clinton should be deemed "off-white." This is an example of an intellectual lightweight who doesn’t quite understand a joke website that mocks white liberals in general. According to Daum, "You don't have to be white to be white. You just need enough disposable income and the desire to buy the lifestyle accessories and adopt the points of view that were once exclusively associated with it." Daum concludes, "the greatest tension may not be between black and white but white and off-white." In this bizarro world, racist whites who hate Obama are deemed "non-white," while blacks who support Obama are deemed "white." The notion that blacks and progressives are the "privileged" part of our society is strange.
Daum’s kind of nonsense comes from the desire to avoid confronting the question of race, and by claiming that poorer, less educated whites are the true victims in our society, oppressed by blacks and progressives. The real problem is the truly privileged people in America (the rich, who are almost entirely white) have convinced parts of the white electorate that blacks and liberals are the enemy, rather than corporations and their lobbyists.
We don’t need a conversation about race. We need a conversation about racism. I know some people may feel that bringing up racism hurts Obama, because it raises questions about whether any black candidate can overcome the high levels of racism revealed in these exit polls. However, I believe that confronting racism is the best hope for Obama’s campaign. The white states of Iowa, Vermont, and Oregon supported Obama in part because racism is less accepted in the places where they live. We need to confront racism everywhere in this country if we want to defeat it. And we need to talk about racism if we want to reduce its influence in the fall election.
UPDATE: Oregon's exit polls have been released. The vote of those who said race was a factor was only 10%, and they split evenly between Clinton and Obama. That means only 5% of Oregon's voters were racist. About 7% of Oregon voters were sexist, but that was outweighed by the 10% of voters who supported Clinton partly because of gender.