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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, May 19, 2008

Race and the Race

by folkbum

One of the last times I ran for any elected office was when I ran for treasurer of my high school senior class. (I lost.) The day before the vote, the school dragged all the kids in my class down to the gym and sat us on the bleachers where we were forced to listen to speeches from all the candidates for all the various offices.

My high school was suburban, but racially integrated as the result of a merger between a number of districts a couple of decades before. In the district's single high school, perhaps 30 or 35% of the students were of African or Asian descent, and the rest of us were white. I do not remember the complete breakdown of who from what racial background was running for which meaningless post my senior year, but I do remember one jerk from the audience that year, a white jerk.

As the students were streaming out of the gym back to class, speeches finished and hopes lifted, this guy yelled out, several times, "Vote for all the white people!"

Let me show you a map:

You've probably seen that map already; it's the counties so far that have voted 65% or more for Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. I took this from DHinMI from before the West Viginia primary, and could not find an updated one from afterwards, but imagine, if you will, that most of the gray WV-shaped area there is also purple (not all, just most).

It's pretty easy to see that Clinton excels in a range stretching from the Appalachians across the Ohio River valley to the Ozarks. (At the link above, you can view the 65% maps for Senator Barack Obama to see that he, too, has areas of strength.) Let me blow up that segment of the map:

I've added a yellow circle showing, roughly, where I come from, where my high school was located that some idiot in a mullet and a heavy metal-band t-shirt can shout out "Vote for all the white people!" before the election of senior class officers. I'm from right there in the thick of it. (It will look even more like it after Kentucky votes on Tuesday.) These voters you hear about in West Virginia who still think Obama's a Muslim or who can't imagine relinquishing control of the US to a black man are, in a very real way, my people.

I knew well enough at 17 that I didn't want the vote of our racist antagonist here, but I also knew that I would be getting it whether I wanted it or not. In this one small way, I think I can say I know how Hillary Clinton feels.

I do not want to suggest in any way that Clinton has gotten as far as she has solely on the basis of some racist vote. On the contrary, when you look at the map of Clinton's 55% and higher victories, you can see that she pulls in the votes pretty well in minority-heavy districts all across the country. I voted for Clinton here in Wisconsin for two solid reasons that had nothing to do with race, making up my mind literally in the voting booth that afternoon. (And if that racist vote were really that powerful, I would have been treasurer of my high school senior class.)

However, it is clear that race is playing a role in this primary for Clinton, as sure as it is for Obama--many of his 65% counties are concentrated across the South where blacks are often the bulk of Democratic primary voters. But there is, I think, a very real difference in the two.

For Clinton, not because she wants it, not because she's cultivated it, not because she deserves it, there is a "vote for all the white people!" mentality that is boosting her vote totals across a limited geographical spread. Again, please do not think that I am accusing Clinton of being racist--she is not--or accusing all those who voted for her of being racist--the vast majority are not. But the difference between a mere victory for Clinton and a blowout across a swath of America has been, I think, those who are motivated by race.

And the same for Obama. However, instead of an antithesis of the "vote for all the white people!" mentality that Clinton has benefited from, there is instead an energy and excitement among African American voters about the chance to finally vote for someone who isn't white. Obama has motivated black voters in this cycle like no one has before, theoretically putting states into play--like Mississippi, where the biggest Democratic upset of the year came largely thanks to black voters even as whites were winning West Virginia for Clinton--that would not have been in play in anyone's wildest imaginations a year ago.

I do not think that my Ohio Valley brethren are enervated over the opportunity to vote for a white presidential candidate. Seems to me that they've had the chance to do exactly that for the last, oh, 200-some years. Rather, a "vote for all the white people!" mentality is a move to protect perceived power as opposed to spread power to traditionally disenfranchised groups.

The irony, of course, is that the poor whites who inhabit the Appalachians and Ozarks and points in between, and who have been giving Clinton her blowout margins, are the furthest thing away from any source of real power. In the same way, the kid who shouted out to my senior class was someone I didn't know (in a class of more than 450 students, that's not that hard), and who likely didn't have any connection to any of the other non-mulleted candidates for any of the offices in that year's low-impact election. Yet at least in the white candidates, there's enough of an "us" (versus "them") to believe.

African Americans across the South, too, who gave Obama his biggest margins, also lack access to traditional structures of power, but are turning out in record numbers.

In many ways, this is perhaps what's most exciting about this election: Both candidates are drawing in huge numbers of Democratic voters whose interests are usually not served by the primary or general election process. No one would have guessed a year ago or even a few months ago the nomination process for either major party would be fought out among those whose voices are usually silenced in the decision-making process. (Both parties count, often too heavily, on the votes of those out of power to help maintain their power; see, for example, What's the Matter with Kansas?, or any one of a billion internet screeds about how the Democrats take the black vote for granted.)

Much about this election season has made me uneasy, not the least of it the bringing back up unpleasant high school memories. But a lot of it has also left me feeling pretty positive about the direction of my party, specifically, and of the country, more generally. The incidental ugliness from some voters will end up, I believe--I hope!--no more significant in the long run of this election than a solitary mullet-head shouting out to 450 kids in a hallway.

In the end, we'll have made history--and that's something people from all different backgrounds should be proud of.

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