Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Race and class

The conjunctions and disjunctions of race and class are of course the proverbial unspoken elephant in the room of this election. This passage from a recent New Yorker captures the point marvelously:

During the first Presidential debate, Obama spoke directly to "middle-class" economic anxieties several times, and he later attacked McCain for never even using the word. But Obama's middle class has no face, no name, no story. Even as he becomes more specific on policy, partly in response to criticism, he still has trouble making a human connection. Bill Clinton could always employ the drawl and roguish charm of Bubba to let the working class know he was one of them, but Obama's life story is based on upward mobility, on transcending his complex origins. There's no readily apparent cultural identity he can fall back on—no folksy or streetwise manner he can assume—that won’t threaten more white voters than it attracts.

That last sentence is profound, and it suggests the limitations that race imposes on Obama even as he appears set to win this election. Obama's preternaturally calm demeanor is a necessary function of his race. Insofar as he allowed himself to get overtly angry -- or overtly funny, for that matter -- he would end up playing into dooming racial stereotypes. But the flip side of always appearing so calm and cool is that some people end up wondering if he's really fully human. A classic "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."

One of the more subtle challenges Obama will face as President is that he's going to need at times to call on those emotional registers if he is to govern successfully -- cool and dispassionate are great character traits, but you lose power if you only can play one emotional note. So far it's not entirely clear that he's capable of that, or how the public would react to him displaying those more hot emotions.

The same article continues:

Gabe Kramer, the S.E.I.U.'s chief of staff in Columbus, told me, "You talk to people about the issues and the issues resonate. But what you hear people talking about on the street and on TV and radio is the other things. Is Obama like us? Does Obama share our experience of the world? Which is not the same thing as racism, but overlaps with it."

I wonder somehow if Obama might have done well to actually call out some of this masked racism from behind its veil. I say that mindful of the most amazing political anecdote I've heard in this campaign, concerning how a black politician can effectively win over the racist vote; from the Economist:
Virginia, once the heartland of slavery, elected a black Democratic governor, Douglas Wilder, two decades ago. Granted, Mr Wilder was more conservative than Mr Obama, and worked hard to charm working-class whites. According to the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, he once said to striking miners: "[I heard you boys] would vote for a nigger before you'd vote for a Republican, and I'm here to tell you that this November, you’re gonna get your chance."
Of course, such knee-jerk anti-Republicanism is no longer present anywhere, so Obama couldn't play that particular card. But the story, apocryphal as it may be, nonetheless suggests an alternative mode for black politicians to discuss race.

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