Let's clear up this Obama / elections / racism issue

Yesterday I wrote a piece translating what I thought last week’s informal poll result meant. It seems like every time I get to talking about racism things get contentious, no matter how obvious the point I’m seeking to make. And if you read that comment thread, you might notice that by the end I’m being portrayed as saying some things, or perhaps meaning some things or implying some things, that I don’t actually say. Or mean. Or imply. So let’s drag it back out here to the top page, where I’m going to reassert control over my own intent for a second.

Let’s start with some things I never said and do not believe:

  • No, all Southerners are not racists.
  • Nor are all the folks in other red states.
  • No, I do not believe that everyone who voted against Obama did so because they’re racist. There are plenty of reasons not to like Obama that have nothing to do with race, and I, among others here at S&R, have written repeatedly about them for the past four years.

Now, let me state, as concisely as possible, my thesis:

A significant number of Americans are voting against Barack Obama because he is black. While conventional analyses suggest that this number is somewhere in the range of perhaps four percent, I believe that number is significantly higher. I do not believe it’s as high as some respondents to the poll do and I said so. In fact, I think some of those respondents have a view that is completely divorced from reason. I said that, too.

Specifically, to Matt Record, who argues, in part:

That Obama’s race would effect the popular vote to the tune of 10 or 20 points is, to me, absurdly divorced of reality.

So, we’re talking about 2% of about 120,000,000 who vote. About 1/3 of the total population. That’s 2,400,000 who will never, ever, ever vote for a black man. Ever. Because if they weren’t going to vote for Barack Obama, they certainly aren’t going to vote for Jesse Jackson Jr. or Al Sharpton.

Let’s even say that’s representative of the larger population. 2% x approx 320,000,000 = 6.4 million people. 6.4 million people that are so racist that they will never vote for a black man under any circumstance.

Yes, I believe that’s approximately the number. Of course we’ll never know who’s right but if my choice was between 6.4 million true, died in the wool racists or 64 million. (64 million!!!) I don’t believe that.

I previously asked Matt a pointed question about what happened between the 1964 and 1968 elections that caused such a sea change of party identity, as the South entirely abandoned the Democratic Party. The answer, of course, was “the Civil Rights Act.” A brief summary, courtesy of Wikipedia:

In conjunction with the civil rights movement, Johnson overcame southern resistance and convinced the Democratic-Controlled Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed most forms of racial segregation. John F. Kennedy originally proposed the civil rights bill in June 1963.[46] In late October 1963, Kennedy officially called the House leaders to the White House to line up the necessary votes for passage.[47][48] After Kennedy’s death, Johnson took the initiative in finishing what Kennedy started and broke a filibuster by Southern Democrats in March 1964; as a result, this pushed the bill for passage in the Senate.[49] Johnson signed the revised and stronger bill into law on July 2, 1964.[49] Legend has it that, as he put down his pen, Johnson told an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation”, anticipating a coming backlash from Southern whites against Johnson’s Democratic Party. Moreover, Richard Nixon politically counterattacked with theSouthern Strategy where it would “secure” votes for the Republican Party by grabbing the advocates of segregation as well as most of the Southern Democrats.[50] [emphasis added]

Johnson underestimated. By a generation. And counting.

Here’s where the thrust of my assertion that the number is greater gets more complex. I believe that those 4% numbers (or even Matt’s 2-5% thinking, which is wholly consistent with other analyses) are misleading. Why? Because the massive shift to the GOP as a result of the Civil Rights Act was exclusively about race. I lived in a house where lifelong Democrats switched parties and there was no attempt to conceal why, so I saw it firsthand. And subsequent votes were racist votes, even though the candidates paying the price were white.

That’s right: a vote against a white candidate can be a racist vote when it is driven by opposition to policies and positions that advantage minorities. Hubert Humphrey was white, but he represented the party that passed the Civil Rights Act. That backlash in 1968 was racist, despite HHH’s lily-whiteness.

That massive white-shifted voting block has never switched back, and from that fact we’re justified in considering why, especially when we ponder the 47-year history of GOP policy re: racial minorities, which has, frankly, not been terribly pro-black, has it?

Which means, if I’m correct, that the four percent number is the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it might even represent the more enlightened end of the spectrum. These are folks who won’t vote for a black. What’s hidden is the larger number of people who won’t vote for anyone associated with a party that passed the Civil Rights Act, and that’s an even more extreme racist stance. And if I’m right, it means that a good chunk of racist vote doesn’t show in conventional analyses because it’s buried in an ideology that masquerades as something else entirely and it never wavers.

My guess is that this theory is measurable. Somebody get me a grant and I’ll see if I can figure out how to test it.

At this point, Matt would probably be well justified in accusing me of changing the argument on him. If what I’m saying is true, then people aren’t voting against Obama because he’s black, they’re voting against him because he’s a Democrat, period.

Perhaps a fair rejoinder. To which I then reply that our choices are a) they’re voting against him because he’s black, or b) they’re voting against him because he’s a Democrat and they vote against Dems because it’s party that supports blacks.

Either way. In any case, this is why I think those analyses that focus on the explicit case of racial hatred for one man miss the point. But at least 10%, and probably more.

Now, let’s turn to another attack on my post in that comment thread, where it’s alleged that the county I grew up in has changed and I don’t know what I’m talking about because I haven’t been back home. Let’s look at some numbers.

In 2004, John Kerry earned 29% of the popular vote in said county – Davidson, in North Carolina. In 2008, Barack Obama pulled 32%. That’s a three percent swing in favor of the black candidate, which certainly looks like evidence that my critic is right.

Except. In 2004, the state of NC voted for George Bush, giving him 62% of the total vote. But in 2008, Barack Obama won the state by a razor-thin margin – the official number was 49.9%. That’s a state-wide swing of 12 points in the direction of the black candidate. So what looks like a three percent argument against me turns into an eight-point swing the other way, doesn’t it? While NC proper was making a decisive move in the Democratic direction, my county was lagging along in dramatic fashion.

This does not prove conclusively that Davidson County, NC is one big happy Klan rally. Of course not – there are plenty of educated, enlightened folks back home. But where the argument is that a significant number of voters – and you see my thinking on the percentages above – are driven by race, these results certainly do nothing to dismiss my position, do they?

A pause

It has officially been two months since I exited the plane at Kigali’s International Airport. Life since then has been what I imagine life to be like if staring inside a tornado from a grounded bathtub – calm at the base with a whirlwind of disorganized familiarities spinning chaotically above. The best part about sitting in the bathtub, though, has been the view of observing each bit of life swirling around me. And unlike the tornado, I’ve been able to choose which pieces to bring back down to Earth and which to send sailing with the wind.

This post is a pause…a time of closing my eyes to the swirling gusts to absorb the joys and learn from the hardships. I have not loved all moments here – whether spinning or still, but I have enjoyed most. And, when I pause I also consider: isn’t this what makes up every stage of life – the chaotic and calm, the loving and not loving of moments?

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