How much will white racism hurt Obama?

Big losses in West Virginia and Kentucky have Democrats scrambling for answers.


Joan Walsh
May 24, 2008 2:32PM (UTC)

Barack Obama's big loss in the Kentucky primary reignited questions about how much white racism is hurting the Democratic front-runner. As in West Virginia, more than 20 percent of voters called race a factor, and the white vote went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. But the same night, Obama won 57 percent of white voters in Oregon. I talk about this contradiction in my Current video this week (text continues below).

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As I've said before, I think Obama's trouble isn't with white voters, but with white working-class voters in Appalachia. And while I know racism is a problem, I think Obama suffers more from being so new on the political scene. People know the Clintons; the '90s were better years for many working-class people. I still wish Obama had campaigned in Kentucky (with John Edwards?) rather than basking in the adoration of 75,000 people in Portland, Ore., or taking a not-quite-victory lap in Des Moines, Iowa. Of course I don't think he'd have won Kentucky, but he might have cut Clinton's margin, and he might have broadcast his concern beyond Kentucky voters to other key, kindred blocs in Ohio (where polls show Obama trails McCain) and Pennsylvania. I think Obama's troubles with Appalachia are comparable to his troubles with Latinos, much more the result of both groups' lack of familiarity with Obama than racism.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to pretend Obama didn't face racism and hostility in Kentucky. Since earlier this week I reprinted a letter from a white, pro-Obama resident of Appalachia taking issue with those who dismiss the region as racist, I wanted to point to this letter from a black Kentucky native talking about how racism is likely still a factor in Obama's woes. I think both letters are telling important truths, and I'm not sure where that leaves the Democrats.

Let's Start With Some Facts

Instead of beginning with analysis, let's begin with some sad facts; When Kentucky Representative Ben Chandler endorsed Barack Obama, over 500 phone calls flooded his office, the vast majority of them using the word "nigger."

Chandler's aides (who were white) went home shaken, crying, in utter disbelief. They didn't think racism still existed.

Now. Sugarcoat it all you want. Call it "Appalachian culture" call it whatever you want, but make no mistake about it, it is racism.

I'm from Kentucky, and I'm black, and can tell you that perhaps it was "culture" when I went to a semi-nerdy mock-government camp in Frankfort, KY, assigned to a hotel room with 4 white girls, and it was assumed we'd all split beds. There were 2 queen size beds. ALL four of them chose to sleep in one bed, rather than to sleep in the bed in which I slept. Perhaps that was just their "culture?"

And that instance was just something off the top of my head ...

Why are we skirting around this issue? Why are we coming up with excuses? It seems as though people are more afraid of being called racist than they are afraid of actually being racist.

Obviously not every Appalachian white person who votes for Clinton is racist, but enough (21 percent) admitted that race mattered to them in their selection of a candidate to bode poorly for the non-white candidate -- no matter the bona fides.

When that is the case, how can you tell Obama that it's his problem -- as an earlier poster noted, no matter what he does, the goalposts change -- he's smart and successful translates into "uppity;" he's the underdog translates into "he's incompetent." They will not be happy until he does the cakewalk for them and grins like Jolson.

Thus Hillary's use of code phrases -- designed to be direct and easily understood by those with animosity towards blacks, resentful of blacks, distrustful of blacks -- those who are ... let's face it -- racists.

Dee Davis says Obama should have visited rural voters more. Why? So that he can change the mind of the Marietta, GA man who portrayed Obama as Curious George? So he can expose his two daughters to possible death threats, so they can witness the panoply of black lawn jockeys? I wish I were merely some Hollywood elite,"deriding" these people; no, I'm just someone who grew up around them, and I knew years ago what those Chandler aides just found out this month: racism is alive and well in "the hills."

-- groovelady


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections

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