Monday, September 14, 2009

White racism and the Teapartiers

After harshing on Maureen Dowd's awful column about racism (Boy, Oh, Boy New York Times Online 09/12/09), I see that Salon is offering a couple of more reality-based takes on the issue: The Blackening of the president by Joan Walsh 09/14/09 and White voters and Obama's slide in the polls by Gabriel Winant 09/14/09.

White racism is a major factor in the Republican Party's base and especially in the more militant rightwing groups. But it's not the only factor and may not be the most important factor for a lot of Republican voters. And to try to understand white racism the way MoDo pretended to do in this weekend's awful column, by mind-reading what Congressman Joe Wilson thought at the moment of his now-famous "You lie!" shout, isn't even going to come close. White racism is interwoven with many other political and cultural factors: fundamentalist Christianity; militant patriotism; high unemployment; attitudes toward violence and crime; conservative sexual mores (and even serious sexual pathologies), to mention a few. That's not to say that white racism isn't a problem in and of itself. On the contrary, it needs to be understood that way. But it can't be understood at all by trying to use careless generalization for our celebrity pundits.

Gabriel Winant summarizes the polling results from Gallup since the Obama administration began. For the week of Jan 19-25, Obama 63% among whites and 78% among nonwhites. By Aug 31-Sept 6, his approval ratings 91% among blacks and 67% among Latinos. But overall, only 45% of whites approved of him while 74% of nonwhites approved. And that followed a consistent trend from Inauguration Day.

Or, as Joan Walsh cuts the numbers, the summer found his approval among whites "dropping by almost one-third, from 63 percent to 43 percent between Memorial Day and Labor Day." There certainly is a racial divide in how favorably Obama is perceived. But just assuming that white racism explains it doesn't cut it, especially in a year where the economy is recovering from the severe blow of eight years of Republican Predator State economic policies, with unemployment still rising. And let's face it: Obama's took the most corporate-friendly approach possible to the bailout. But when it comes to an issue terribly important to a large majority of the voters, including some significant number of loyal Republican voter, until the last few days he's been sounding an uncertain trumpet.

On clearly racial hot-button issues like the Gates incident and the Sonya Sotomayor nomination, I've supported Obama's position. But my own approval of his performance has dropped significantly, as I've explained here in other posts, because of the White House's continued signals that they are almost desperate to give up the public option on health insurance, the element that makes a decisive difference in the program becoming relatively quickly popular and effective versus becoming an Insurance Corporations Profit-Gouging Guarantee bill. Hearing one of his most senior advisers and long-time close confidant, Valerie Jarrett, at the Netroots Nation convention say outright that the White House didn't intend to pressure the Blue Dogs to support the public option was kind of turning point in my thinking on this administration. That was a jaw-dropping statement to me.

So I'm sure that some significant part of that decline among white and Latino voters is disillusionment over some of Obama's more questionable domestic policies. And a majority of the public now opposes the Afghanistan War, and that support is very unlikely to bounce back very much. That opposition is much larger among Democrats than among Republicans, and that has to be contributing something to Obama's approval ratings' decline. Joan even notes and important fact in a paragraph I quote below, important enough that I wonder why she put it in parentheses: "His current 43 percent white approval rating could be cited as proof that Obama has simply come back down to earth after more than seven months in office, since that's the exact share of white support he got on Election Day."

Having said that, she is also surely right to some degree when she writes:

They've blackened Obama, in both senses of the word -- simultaneously diminishing his support and emphasizing his ethnicity. Simply by raising consciousness about the president's race and associating him with radical identity politics, they've diminishing his standing among a large swath of the public.
But to what degree? She also summarizes very well the voting patterns last year that didn't give much support to the notion of race being a major factor. She mentions that there was no "Bradley effect" (there probably wasn't even one for Bradley!) in which some white voters tell pollsters they would vote for the minority candidate and then don't. From what I recall, if anything there was a "reverse Bradley effect" in which more white voters supported Obama than told the pollsters they would do so.

Here's where the complexity of how white racism works politically comes in. White voters who understand themselves as more-or-less racist and have no problem with that didn't vote for Obama and are unlikely to in 2012. But background racial assumptions among some portion of white voters may make them more receptive to fear-mongering like the whole business about Sotomayor's "wise Latina" phrase. And Glenn Beck, for one, couldn't be more explicit in telling people that Obama is racist against white people. The Democrats have to take those "dog whistle" appeals - and the explicit accusation that Obama is a racist against whites - very seriously and jam them back down the Republicans' throats. The boycott movement against Beck's show is one example of that happening.

But I also worry that Joan is not taking seriously enough the history of the Republican opposition during the Clinton administration. She makes the argument that the intensity of the opposition to Obama indicates that race is playing a bigger factor. For instance, she writes:

Finally, when Republicans began objecting to Obama's speaking to schoolkids last week, you couldn't ignore the racism: Listening to some parents' expressing actual fear of having Obama beamed into their kids' classrooms, it was hard to imagine such hysteria being inspired by a white president. It would never happen.
Hard to imagine? Has she forgotten the expressed worries of respectable Republicans over the hideously corrupting effect that stories of Clinton's sad little love affair would have on the vulnerable kiddies? I don't have any trouble imagining that the FOXists would be doing that very thing to a President Hillary Clinton.

Admittedly, judging intensity in a political movement like the Teapartiers involves more educated guessing that quantifying how Obama's approval ratings break down by race. But I worry that Democrats will use the it's-worse-now-because-of-white-racism assumption to avoid for even longer facing up to the role genuine fanaticism plays in today's Republican Party. And remembering how long these kinds of things have been the main modus operandi of the Reps is part of understanding the nature of the opposition. And why so many Dems find Obama's continued pious talk about the need of "bipartisanship" so dismaying.

That is not to say that white racism plays no part. And here's where I part from the approach that writers like Bob Somerby, Michael Lind and even to some extent Gene Lyons have taken on this issue of the role of racism in the Republican opposition to Obama. I do think white racism plays a big role. But it also played a big role in the 1990s. Some significant number of white voters identify the Democratic Party as the Party that will pander to "identity politics" and in doing so discriminate against white people. And they did so when Bill Clinton was President as well. This is deep-rooted problem from which the Republican Party suffers. It didn't begin with the election of an African-American President. And I'm not at all convinced that this is more intense than the hate-filled, insane accusations the Reps and the Establishment press threw at Bill and Hillary Clinton. As Somerby himself notes in a post of 09/12/09:

By the summer of Clinton’s second year in office, two active attempts were made on his life. One guy even flew a small plane into the White House, apparently trying to kill him. Colbert King doesn’t seem to remember. Might we suggest why that is? [my emphasis]
This - and "this" includes white racism in the Republican Party - is not a new problem and I don't think progressives or Democrats generally do ourselves any favors by assuming that it is.

Joan also makes a very important qualification:

The timeline is intriguing, but correlation isn't cause, and we can't prove these events directly led to the decline in Obama's white support. Ever the optimist, I'd even argue that racism is probably not the main cause. For one thing, the surge in white approval around Inauguration Day was lovely, but predictably ephemeral; it reflected people's pride in the country's having elected a black president more than their belief in him. (His current 43 percent white approval rating could be cited as proof that Obama has simply come back down to earth after more than seven months in office, since that's the exact share of white support he got on Election Day.) [my emphasis]

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