Thursday, November 01, 2007

I'm Not a Racist, I Support Obama!

Mike Meginnis asks if some of the support Obama receives from high-brow Whites, particularly Republicans, is (at least in part) anti-racist signaling.
It’s not too hard to explain why people hate Clinton — equal parts sexism and her genuine lack of personal appeal, I would say — but I think Republican love for Obama is a little weirder. My partial explanation is that Obama is black. Republicans aren’t complete morons — they know they have a reputation for racist attitudes and policies. Many of them are really defensive about it. They constantly remind their relatives and friends how they don’t see any difference between black and white, they believe we’re all equal, they support civil rights, etc. But it’s hard to adopt any low-cost behaviors that signify such anti-racist perspectives without causing awkwardness. We all feel sort of weird around that white guy who spends every waking minute talking about civil wars in Africa, blood diamonds, his appreciation for the music of Bob Marley, and so forth. He means well enough but we don’t know how to read him — to what extent is his conspicuous demonstration of virtue an endearing flirtation with genuinely progressive politics, and to what extent is it all just a cover?

Obama support offers people a chance to symbolically demonstrate their enlightenment at no cost. I’ve heard and read a number of times now about racist white people developing a strange attachment to Obama. They don’t normally like Democrats but this kid seems alright. It doesn’t hurt that he uses language designed to help him buddy up with those who are, more or less, afraid of black people — he is, in some ways, professionally a nonthreatening black man. I don’t mean that as a criticism. To an extent this highlights the expert way in which he has navigated this country’s complicated and often awful relationship with race, but ultimately it doesn’t mean much for his chances come election day. People are brilliant in this country at finding ways to vote conservative when everything they know tells them not to. My mother knew Bush was a disaster and she voted for him anyway not because Kerry would do anything to make abortion more common but because he approved of it. They’ll find something or other like that come election day if Obama gets the nod. There’s no reason they can’t say one thing and do another. They might even go on doing it after the fact. Obama has been adopted by many racists and anxious, defensive republicans as a symbol, but that’s as far as it goes.

I think there is something to this. In a nominally color-blind society, people need to have someone they can point to as proof that they are not making judgments based on color. It's tough to swing that when the only politicians you ever vote for are White. Finding that one guy you can support makes for a great bulwark against future charges of racism. And, as Meginnis says, you can always find a last-minute reason to vote for his opponent anyway -- just so long as you continue to assert how much you like Obama. But is there any substantive anti-racism message or practice in one's support of Obama?

A few months ago, my friends asked me why I was supporting Obama, and among the several answers I gave, one was that I thought it was long since time we had a Black (or just non-White) President. They laughed and accused me of casting an "affirmative action vote."

At first, I recoiled from the term, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think it's okay. Voting, after all, is just a way of divvying up a particular social good, and in fact, as a young, relatively powerless college student, it's one of the most direct avenues I have for pointing how I think society should distribute a particular socially salient position. Taking seriously my own position on affirmative action, which is that it accurately takes "contribution to diversity" into account as a function of merit, there is no reason why Obama breaking up the Whites-only club at the White House ought not factor into my decision. It's one more thing about Obama that makes him better from the rest of the field.

That doesn't mean it couldn't possibly be outweighed. If I found Obama's policies to be wrong-headed, or I thought he wasn't qualified to take the helm as commander-and-chief, or I thought that his opponents' views were substantially more in line with my own, then those factors could easily take precedence over the diversity plus factor. But that doesn't mean it isn't a relevant consideration.


PG said...

I don't know any Republicans who are supportive of Obama in preference to all of the GOP candidates, but then I don't know any super-anti-war Republicans. Also, assuming that Ezra's Republican acquaintance must be a racist seems a bit much.

Besides, there's a much lower cost way to sign that one isn't a racist OR a sexist (as long as one also isn't anti-war): draft Condi.

At this point, whenever I hear a Republican say something nice about Obama relative to H. Clinton, I immediately suspect that person of trying to give the Dems a candidate whom the Republicans think moderates won't elect.

And someone who would vote Republican just to keep H. Clinton out of the White House can't be THAT anti-war. There's a significant gap between the position taken by all the major GOP candidates (we will continue this war until "victory" and -- except for McCain -- hopefully will get to waterboard folks along the way), and H. Clinton's position (I will be looking for an exit ASAP and to hell with "victory," but obviously must make decisions based on current conditions).

Anonymous said...

Obama can't even put his hand over his heart during the national anthem

He will not go anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, three thoughts:

First, having canvassed New Hampshire all summer, I'll say that not all racists are quite advanced enough to embrace Barack Obama. I've seen a number of race-motivated anti-Obama reactions, which range from "I just don't think people would vote for a black man" to "I just don't like him," which is almost inevitably cover for "I just wouldn't vote for a black president," to one or two renditions of "That n----r?" So I'll say that, at the very least, even those white folks who embrace Obama in the hopes of making themselves appear not to be racist are, well, less racist than some people out there.

Second, there's absolutely no reason to avoid a discussion of race in motivations for voting - the alternative is pretending we're a race-neutral country, which results in the perpetuation of white privilege since you can't erase privilege in silence.

Finally, without meaning to defend this position, there's something to be said for the value of having a nonthreatening black man in office - ditto a nonthreatening woman, a nonthreatening lesbian, a nonthreatening disabled person, and so forth. I tend to find, for instance, that when, in high school, I came out to people I had already known and gone to school with for a while, they were willing to reconsider their perspectives on homosexuality because suddenly a person who they'd already conceived as fairly normal and safe to be around had declared herself to have this identity that they used to be afraid of. I think we can certainly see the same effect for someone like Barack. And ultimately that makes it safer for the less conventional-looking "outsiders" to enter politics; in crude terms, Barack Obama helps get white folks used to black leaders in the same way as mainstream gays help straight folks get used to the rest of the queer community. So even if some people vote (or say they'll vote) for Obama because he's a comfortable way for them to prove that they're not racist, it still has some pragmatic benefits.

David Schraub said...

I'm just stunned anybody who knew you would think you're normal, Eva :-P.

Cycle Cyril said...

If a voter votes for someone who is black just to prove you're not racist demonstrates only that 1)the voter is simplistic and superficial and 2)he or she is racist.

It offers no benefit to anyone.

Anonymous said...

I foolishly donated over $3,000.00 to Obama's campaign- I have had a change of heart after watching Obama declare to Oprah Winfrey that he is a member of The Trinity United Church Of Christ in Chicago. (It's an all-black church that supports Africa, never mentions anything about America.) I encourage people to research this for themselves to prove there is truth to this story.

Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

If you do not support Obama on the Dem. side then yes you are plain old racist.


If you are white that is because only white people are racist.

Anonymous said...

So you're voting for Obama - but you're NOT a racist. Well, if you believe in partial birth abortions (you know, crushing a child's skull and then sucking out it's brain out because it is not considered a human being because it has not exited the womb), homosexual marriages, you're - then you're not a racist, you'e just mislead.

I am a Chritian and all of the above is just one more step to the end of the world and the coming of Christ. I'm ready, are you?

Anonymous said...

There are many whites willing to stand up and show their opposition to the plutocrats, oligarchs, war mongers, war profiteers and Zionists who are playing and going to play the race card for all it's worth. Am referring to the West Coast, specifically, because thats what I see.

I think it's high time for Americans of all races and creeds and nationalities to stand together and have a little housecleaning.
I don't know how people demonstrate Not being racist but I think part of being non racist is by not excusing evil just because those committing it have the same color/nationality/religion as oneself.