David R. Roediger

What Effect Would Obama's Election Have on Race Relations

October 5, 2008

By David Roediger

That sharp student of race and change in the U.S., Malcolm X, once observed that white supremacy was like a Cadillac. Both featured constant model changes, but also an ongoing pattern that gave the branding continuity across years and generations. Racial inequality, on this view, was not the fixed set of differences that racist advocates of “segregation forever” still hoped for as Malcolm X wrote. But neither was it an ever-diminishing flaw, gradually being overcome, as liberals insisted. Instead it was, to borrow a phrase the poet Amiri Baraka applied to jazz, a “changing same.”

As I finished the just-published popular study How Race Survived U.S. History (Verso), in the midst of the dramatic unfolding of the 2008 presidential campaign, I more and more appreciated the suppleness of Malcolm's metaphor. After arguing that slavery and settlement created race in its modern sense, the book describes the ways in which deep structural and political inequalities insured the continuation of race-thinking. New forms constantly emerged in response to new events and forces—for example, revolutionary egalitarianism, the emancipatory turn of the Civil War, mass immigration, freedom movements, and the advent of formal legal equality—that really did pressure and alter white supremacy.

Nonetheless the book posited overarching continuities, often generated by deep connections of whiteness and access to property and liberty, connections cemented by state action at one critical juncture after another. And as I wrote, African American and Latino family wealth was a ninth that of whites. Black males suffered incarceration rates at sevenfold those of white males, with much of the imprisonment stemming from drug crimes committed in rough parity across the color line. Two-thirds of all tuberculosis cases afflicted people of color. The very narrow room for maneuver, vision and arguments regarding justice in the two-party elections in the U.S. left no candidate speaking directly to such issues.

Analysts of the “Obama Phenomenon” have had a hard time keeping both halves of the Cadillac comparison at play. For upwards of a year the media and others have instead offered up an alternating current insisting at one moment that race was on its way out if not over and in the next that the same old changeless Cadillac of racism made Barack Obama's election impossible. Obama's earliest success in the Iowa caucuses generated an immediate and particular euphoria. Both he and “we” had won, with the accent on the latter. Commentators from the Wall Street Journal to Andrew Sullivan to Jesse Jackson gloried in a new racial day.

After Iowa, the polls in the New Hampshire primary showed Democrats there poised promised to ratify the redemption of the U.S.from racism, with a nearly all-white state ready to deliver so many votes to Obama as to knock Hillary Clinton out of the race. When Clinton nevertheless won in New Hampshire, running over 15% better than the polls had predicted, suddenly the election seemed to observers to be all about the continuities of race.

Pew Center studies from the 1990s on white responses to pollsters in elections with an African American candidate were dusted off. The studies posited that many whites were liberal enough to contemplate voting for a black candidate, but insufficiently so to actually pull the voting booth lever for him or her. The Clinton campaign broadly hinted that some variant of this logic operated, insisting that she therefore had a better chance to win even when she trailed Obama in national polls against the likely Republican nominee. Hillary Clinton's deplorable—she herself quickly deplored it—claim to be the candidate of “hardworking Americans, white Americans” thus came in a context of a campaign in which race typically and alternately was cast as either being over or as being what really mattered. Indeed it has often been cast as both at once.

Where voters of color are concerned, the attempts to find a simplistically “racial” explanation for electoral choices have run riot. When Sergio Bendixen, an advisor to Clinton's campaign, told the New Yorker that “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness… to support black candidates,” he was echoing much superficial reporting on an allegedly insurmountable Black/Latino rift. Criticisms of his stance centered on its political correctness, not on the fact that it was historically wrong. Now that Obama trounces McCain in polls of Hispanic voters, no retractions are deemed necessary.

More spectacularly, though it is now hard to recall, pundits originally tied very early polls showing an African American preference for Clinton over Obama to the atavistic belief that he was supposedly “not black enough” culturally and perhaps genetically. When massive Black support for Obama did coalesce, the equally reductive explanation became that African Americans vote along racial lines moved to the fore.

Reality was always more complicated. In the pivotal South Carolina primary, Obama won by combining a quarter of the white vote with a huge majority of African American primary voters. When his supporters hopefully chanted “RACE DOESN'T MATTER” at the victory rally they therefore did so more in the spirit of hope than of sociological accuracy, but their optimism at least left room for contemplating the remarkable fact that a fourth of white South Carolina Democratic voters had chosen an African American candidate.

An accent on the change in the changing same of Obama's candidacy would stress his charismatic ability to embody much of what has forced new permutations of white supremacy since the 1960s: Immigration by people of color, significant increases in racial intermarriage and transracial adoptions, and the rise of a cosmopolitan and successful new Black middle class able to move in and sometimes move mainstream institutions are the most discussed such factors.

How Race Survived U.S. History would add that the tremendous influence of African popular culture, often in the most highly marketed forms, and the use of self-reporting of race in the census and other official contexts, combine to leave race today seeming more and more a matter of choice, even taste. Especially among young white voters this absence of fixity opens the way to preferring Obama and his style.

However, such changes leave open the question of whether race is a matter of choice for poor people of color, often “illegal” in terms of immigration status or “in the system” of incarceration and its aftermath. Moreover, the politics of style which attracts white voters to Obama would likely be greatly strained if his campaign also included straightforward appeals to redress racial inequalities.

The election therefore is sure to tell us important things about race in the U.S., but not whether the Cadillac of white supremacy is about to be taken out of production. However much pundits and candidates want to make the question of race turn on bad but disappearing individual attitudes, and then to measure whether many or few voters act on those attitudes on election day, the deep structural inequalities not being discussed in this election continue to decisively shape whether race will survive in the twenty-first century U.S.