Obama, The New Majority, And The Race (Card) Ahead

By Jeff Chang Jun 05, 2008

Originally published on Zentronix Last night Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with grace and poise, a history-making achievement that neither John McCain or Hillary Clinton could bring themselves to recognize. One hundred thirty six years after Frederick Douglass became the first African American on a presidential ticket (as vice presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party) and 36 years after Shirley Chisholm’s path-breaking Democratic presidential run, Obama attained the necessary number of delegates to become the first African American presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. He dedicated the night to his grandmother. He has described her as a white woman not immune to the prejudices of an earlier era but who now lives comfortably with multiracial brood in Hawai’i. Surely she would understand the historical significance of her grandson’s victory. On the other hand, Hillary dedicated her night to her 18 million voters, many of whom chanted "Denver!" as if they wanted to fight on until the Democratic Convention in August. If Hillary’s speech was meant to be a tribute to those who helped her in a hard-fought campaign, the images of her rabidly desperate followers reduced it to something like a shocking display of vanity. Obama won only after one of the most racially divisive election seasons in history. Despite his desire to remain Jackie Robinson-like, his opponents raised race as soon as he began to rack up a series of surprising wins. Progressive feminists like Gloria Steinem suggested–without much evidence–that the wave of support for Obama’s candidacy was a sign that gender discrimination remained more immovable than racial discrimination. Later, former President Bill Clinton dismissed Obama’s win in South Carolina by comparing it to failed presidential candidate Jesse Jackson’s wins in 1984 and 1988. Black voters vote for black candidates, after all, he suggested. And in the last two months, as the contest shifted to states where Appalachian voters play a key role, Hillary Clinton suggested that she was the candidate of white working-class voters. Newsweek’s cover story, "Memo to Senator Obama", cites surveys showing 45% of white voters hold unfavorable views of Obama, as opposed to 35% for McCain. (Non-whites’ unfavorable numbers for Obama are half as much.) So author Ethan Thomas gives Obama a primer on how to win back white voters. He writes that despite Internet lies–Obama is Muslim, he believes the national anthem conveys a warlike message, he’s sympathetic to terrorists, etc.–Obama should play it soft on race:

It’s hard to think of what would turn off whites quicker than playing the thin-skinned victim.

Thomas seems to have already forgotten that, in the middle of a racialized firestorm not of his own making, Obama delivered one of the most nuanced and sensible speeches on race in decades. Thomas also urges Obama to take a position "that plays against prejudice or typecasting": to oppose affirmative action as "a powerful signal" to white working-class voters allegedly enraged at black privilege. For his part, Obama has said he is for affirmative action, but has expressed doubts about whether his own daughters should benefit from such policies. Thomas may be correct that white, working-class voters will remain a key battleground in the general election. Polls have shown that as much as one-third of Hillary’s base may desert Obama in the general election by voting for McCain or staying home. But Obama may only need to win a portion of those voters, some are lost to him in any case, and it’s not clear that reversing himself on the wedge issues of the 80s and 90s gains anything for him as much it loses his base. Much of the mainstream media’s attention has been on the "ignored" white working-class voters of the heartland. They may be the most documented "ignored" demographic in history. You might remember this media-homogenized group as the Silent Majority, the Reagan Democrats, the NASCAR electorate, the Kansas voters, etc. But Obama’s candidacy rests on a new electoral landscape. Obama has reaped the benefits of demographic shifts that Jackson foresaw over two decades ago in plotting his own campaign–the emergence of sizable communities of color and a progressive, multicultural generation of voters. In 2050, more than half the U.S. will be of color. But 2008 may be the year that this electorate arrives. Urban gentrification in the West has led to an African American exodus back to the South, forming emerging majorities of long-time residents and new urban migrants. Obama’s stunning primary victories may portend part of the South’s swing back to blue. Although Latinos voted largely for Clinton in the primaries, and Asian Americans appeared split, there are still few indications that they may shift to McCain. To his credit, McCain recognizes that we are a country that remains pro-immigrant. But after years of race-baiting campaigns, McCain’s party has thoroughly alienated Latinos and Asian Americans. At the same time, the war, the environment and the domestic politics of abandonment and containment have made young voters the most Democratic-leaning in generations. McCain clearly faces a tougher time making his case than Obama, whose own story parallels the immigrant story and whose energy has inspired the young. With an uninspired Republican base, it seems McCain needs the race card more than Hillary ever did, yet he plays it only at his–and his party’s–future peril. Over the next four decades, the demographics are hardly with them. As much as the Clintons depended on an old majority, Obama could be handing Democrats the new majority. But the Democrats aren’t much different than the record industry: give them a sure thing and they’ll always figure out how to screw it up. As Marjorie Valbrun of TheRoot.com wrote in the same issue of Newsweek this week:

A woman educated at Yale and Wellesley who can afford to lend her campaign $20 million becomes the standard-bearer for working-class white people? She’s clearly not a coal miner’s daughter. So how did she do this? She appealed to their most base racial fears and resentments. It’s worth remembering that Clinton started the race with a large base of black support. Then she made it easy for black women to abandon her.

Obama is the son of a white working-class family from Kansas, and a Black farming family from Kenya. Only in America, he has said, a new America. If the Dems don’t want to be abandoned by the new America, they would do well in the coming weeks to bring closure to the divisive primary season not by pandering to old resentments, but by waking up to the future.