White Resentment, Obama, and Appalachia

Steve Kornacki tries to do the math on Obama's unpopularity throughout Appalachia:

A majority of Kentucky's 120 counties voted against Obama in the state's Democratic presidential primary, opting instead for "uncommitted." Big margins in Louisville and Lexington saved the president from the supreme embarrassment of actually losing the state, not that his overall 57.9 to 42.1 percent victory is anything to write home about...

Chalking this up only to race may be an oversimplification, although there was exit poll data in 2008 that indicated it was an explicit factor for a sizable chunk of voters. Perhaps Obama's race is one of several markers (along with his name, his background, and the never-ending Muslim rumors, his status as the "liberal" candidate in 2008) that low-income white rural voters use to associate him with a national Democratic Party that they believe has been overrun by affluent liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists and gays - people and groups whose interests are being serviced at the expense of their own.

I think that "Chalking this up only to race" is a strawman, and its one that I often see writers invoke when talking about white resentment and Obama. Here's another example from Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake:

But although no one doubts that race may be a factor, exit polling suggests that the opposition to Obama goes beyond it. And seasoned political observers who have studied the politics of these areas say race may be less of a problem for Obama than the broader cultural disconnect that many of these voters feel with the Democratic Party. 

"Race is definitely a factor for some Texans but not the majority," said former congressman Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.). "The most significant factor is the perception/reality that the Obama administration has leaned toward the ultra-left viewpoint on almost all issues."

The presumption here is that race can somehow be bracketed off from the perception that Obama is "ultra-left."  Thus unlike other shameful acts of racism, opposition to Obama race as a possible "factor" but goes "beyond it." Or in Kornacki's formulation Obama, presumably unlike past victims, is facing a complicated opposition which can't be reduced to raw hatred of blacks.

The problem with these formulations is that they are utterly ahistorical. There is no history of racism in this country that chalked "up only to race." You can't really talk about stereotypes of, say, black laziness unless you understand stereotypes of the poor stretching back to 17th century Great Britain (Edmund Morgan again.) You can't really talk about the Southern slave society without grappling with the relationship between the demand for arable land and the demand for labor. You can't understand the racial pogroms at the turn of the century without understanding the increasing mobility of American women. (Philip Dray At The Hands Of Persons Unknown.)

And this works the other way too. If you're trying to understand the nature of American patriotism without thinking about anti-black racism, you will miss a lot. If you're trying to understand the New Deal, without thinking about Southern segregationist senators you will miss a lot. If you're trying to understand the very nature of American democracy itself, and not grappling with black, you will miss almost all of it. 

In sum, there is very little about racism that can be chalked "only up to race." Chalking up slavery, itself, only to race is a deeply distorting oversimplification. The profiling that young black males endure can't chalked up "only to race" either. It's also their youth and their gender. Complicating racism with other factors doesn't make it any better. It just makes it racism. Again. 

I don't mean to come down on Kornacki or Cillizza. But I think this sort of writing about race--and really about American politics--as though history doesn't exist is a problem. Specifically, journalists are fond of saying "racism is only one factor" without realizing that any racism is unacceptable. It is wrong to believe Barack Obama shouldn't be president because he's black. That you have other reasons along with those--even ones that rank higher--doesn't make it excusable. Likely those other reasons are themselves tied to Obama being black.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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