Friday, November 9, 2012

Barack Obama, Race in America, and the Significance of 2012

In recent months, a couple of studies have been released that I found very disturbing. One demonstrated that racial prejudice among white Americans has increased significantly since the 2008 election of Barack Obama; another reveals that white people today think they are victims of racism more than African Americans are.

I’ve been thinking about those numbers a lot lately, and what they might mean, and how they tie in to the election and re-election of Barack Obama.

I am going to begin this essay with a discussion of race in America, parts of which I have addressed in my blogs before (so this part may be familiar to some of you.)


Colonial America was built around a racialized hierarchy, which was ultimately a hierarchy of power.
A hierarchy is a structure. If you wanted to rise to the top of that structure you had to be a WASP –a word that was pretty common when I was growing up in the 70s but isn’t heard that much anymore. WASP stands for “White Anglo Saxon Protestant.” (You could add the word “male” in there, too.) In other words, for most of American history, to be accepted at the highest levels of society you need to be descended from white English people.

As the “W” shows, that structure is racial as well as social. I demonstrate below a model of the racial hierarchy created in colonial America, which was the structure Southern culture was based on until the Civil War. Wealthy white planters were at the top of the structure, followed by artisans and craftsmen who would later be referred to as the middle class, then by a large number of poor whites. Below that is a thin layer –free blacks. There wasn’t a huge number of them. At the base of the structure were slaves- the foundation on which the whole culture was laid.
It was explained very succinctly to Massachusetts native John Quincy Adams by his colleague, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun (who would later serve as Vice-President to both Adams and Andrew Jackson) in 1820. As Adams reported, “After this meeting, I walked home with Calhoun, who said that the principles which I had avowed [that is, liberty and freedom]were just and noble: but that in the Southern country, whenever they were mentioned, they were always understood as applying only to white men.”

It was not in the best interests of the wealthy planters for poor whites and blacks to figure out they had anything in common –although in a lot of ways they had more in common with one another than with the other groups (These are the same tactics used in the 19th century to prevent blacks and whites from uniting in labor unions.) Therefore, a line of demarcation was introduced into the structure:

It was, of course, a color line. Since this is a power structure, and white is on top, you could also call it a whiteness line. The people at the very top could tell poor whites: “Hey, maybe you don’t have as much money as us, or education, or opportunity… but at least you’re on the right side of The Line- you’re white, just like us, and that means we’re on the same side… and, if nothing else, you’ll always know you’re better than the people on the bottom side of the line.” Hence, poor whites in the South –who could not afford slaves, and probably never would –went out and fought for the right of wealthy whites to own slaves. Even though slavery meant poor whites had very few job opportunities. (NOTE: in the mountainous Southern Appalachians, where cotton could not be grown and there were few slaves, most poor whites supported the Union.)

One way of demonstrating this is what I like to call “The Cookie Analogy.” Imagine Southern colonial culture as a plate of 10 cookies… with the planter class having 8 cookies, poor whites having one, and blacks having one. The Color Line is the Planter Class’s way of saying to the Poor White- “Hey, you better watch that black guy, I think he wants your cookie!” in order to create a false sense of camaraderie while also distracting the Poor White from thinking about the fact the Planter has almost all the cookies on the plate.

Another demonstration of how this works can be seen in the sit-com All in the Family. The character of Archie Bunker is a middle-aged, working class white man who is a) extremely bigoted and b)extremely upset about the ways the world he knows is rapidly changing. Archie grew up in an America where -even if he didn't have much going for him -at least he was better than those people. That position of security -being on the WASP team -gave him an innate sense of privilege which the socially progressive movements of the 60s and 70s threatened.

In essence, a new socio-racial hierarchy was in place in the U.S. by the late 1800s. Like in the earlier racial hierarchy model from the antebellum South, there is a line of demarcation that could be called a “line of whiteness”:

In this model, the farther away an immigrant group is from Northern/Western Europe –thus the farther away they are from Anglo-Saxon –the less acceptable they are.

Just as in the colonial model, African Americans are on the bottom. Writers and historians –from W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin to Winthrop Jordan –have long proposed that white identity in America was formed in opposition to black, using blackness as a defining “other.” I will speak more about that in the following section. Suffice it to say that for Irish and other immigrant groups to rise to the level of “white,” they had to also define themselves against the other end of the racial spectrum and make it clear they were not “black.”

Case in point: The New York Draft Riots of 1863.

The Civil War was raging, and a draft had been instituted on both sides. In New York, a large number of Irish immigrants were drafted, sometimes shortly after they got off the boat. At that time, anyone able to pay a substantial fee didn’t have to serve –which meant that wealthier men didn’t have to be drafted if they didn’t want to be, whereas poor men had little choice. It was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” This contributed to the anti-draft feeling in the city. What started as anger directed at draft officers in July, 1863, quickly escalated into a race riot that lasted for days, with largely Irish mobs invading the black neighborhoods and killing an untold number of African Americans (possibly hundreds, although the exact number is not known.) Among other things, they burned down a colored orphanage. African Americans had little or nothing to do with Irish immigrants’ situation; the fact they were targeted shows that the Irish knew where they were on the hierarchy.

As James Baldwin put it in the introduction of his 1985 work The Price of the Ticket (p. xx):
“…the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking. The Irish, therefore and thereafter… had absolutely no choice but to make certain I could not menace their safety or status or identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the consent of the governed, kill me.”

W.E.B. Dubois wrote, in his essay “The Soul of White Folk,” that
“[America] aspires to sit among the great nations who arbitrate the fate of ‘lesser breeds without the law’ and she is at times heartily ashamed even of the large number of ‘new’ white people whom her democracy has admitted to place and power. Against this surging forward of Irish and German, of Russian Jew, Slav and ‘dago’ her social bars have not availed, but against Negroes she can and does take her unflinching and immovable stand... She trains her immigrants to this despising of ‘niggers’ from the day of their landing, and they carry and send the news back to the submerged classes in the fatherlands.”

This is how racial hierarchies function. To work your way into the upper levels, one must show solidarity with the upper levels against those on the bottom. Another important element is paternalism ; in fact, I would say that paternalism is the oil that greases the socio-racial hierarchy machine. This brings us back to our earlier discussion about All in the Family. The son-in-law Michael (or, as Archie called him, Meathead) was a liberal grad student engaged in many progressive causes, which was a source of endless arguments with his father-in-law. It was always evident to the viewer, however -especially when he was interacting with his (apparently only) black friend -that he had a strong and condescending feeling of paternalism.


James Baldwin explained that European immigrants “come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American… The price the white American paid for his ticket [My note: that is, entry into the top level of the racial structure] was to become white.”

Non-black groups –Italians, Irish, Poles, and non-Europeans (Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, etc.) can “become” white, but –in this racialized power structure -blacks cannot, because they are the defining other. “White” is the position above the color line; “white” is defined against the “debased” and “inferior” other. Thus, being white primarily means not being black. Or, as Baldwin put it, whites (almost tragically) have no identity of their own, they can only define themselves as what they are not, as though of all groups they are the one with “something missing.”

More practically, whiteness is the dominant end of a racialized, racist power structure. This dominant end sets in motion the necessary actions to maintain the structure. The purpose of the structure is for the top to have something to rest upon; in other words, the whole thing is there so that the dominant group will be able to define itself as the dominant group.

If you are a member of that group, you have –in Baldwin’s parlance –the ticket in your hand.  You have certain privileges that come with belonging to the dominant end of the structure –but you might not even realize it, because those privileges are so intrinsically a part of who you are, and seem so normal, that you often don’t recognize that other people don’t have them. Peggy McIntosh has a great article describing just what some of those privileges are, called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The biggest privilege of all, though, is the one enjoyed by Archie Bunker: knowing that, no matter how tough your life is, you are part of the dominant group.

And as I mentioned, Archie Bunker felt very threatened in the early 1970s by the rapid social changes taking place- changes which threatened  to blur the sharply drawn hierarchy of American culture, and thus threatened the security of his place atop the structure.

A lot of Americans were talking, after Obama’s election in 2008, about a “post-racial nation.” A black man has been elected president; racism must be over. A year before that, I had expressed some serious concerns about the public’s apparent perception that racism was a solved issue, in an essay I wrote about the events in Jena, Louisiana:

“Do today’s white students believe that opposing racism is a passé cause? That the Civil Rights Movement occurred –so long ago, in their eyes –and the monster was slain? Or, worse, that race is a black problem, to be handled by blacks alone? Because friends, Jena, Louisiana –like Hurricane Katrina –have proven that racism is alive in America. Not the subtle, whispered kind practiced by some taxi drivers or store clerks, but the full-fledged, virulent sort which we are used to seeing only in black and white newsreels. We may comfort ourselves by saying that we slew that serpent long ago (I will not dignify it by calling it a dragon); the sibilant hissing issuing from the shadows of our country says otherwise.”

The election of Barack Obama in 2008, sadly, did not prove that the serpent was dead –it brought said reptile out into the daylight, as racism became more obvious, and commonplace, than it had been in decades. Racial hate groups grew in membership across the country. Seemingly intelligent people started distributing cartoons of the president with a bone through his nose, or the first lady eating watermelon, or both of them depicted as apes. One friend of mine, a lifelong Democrat before that election cycle, sent a frantic email after Obama’s 2008 victory saying that we had become the United States of Africa, and that blacks would riot in the streets, and that no white person’s job would be safe. And this was by no means an isolated incident.

Which brings us to one of those surveys I mentioned at the outset which I find disturbing. Racism among white people has significantly increased since 2008. Some people point to that survey and say “See how divisive this president is!” If he has been divisive, it is a result of who he is, not what he has done. Obama has been center-left for the most part –one of the most moderate Democrats on the public stage, the sort of politician who would once have been described as an Eisenhower Republican. Yet he has been portrayed by a large (and overwhelmingly white) section of the American public as a socialist bordering on communism (and the policies pointed to as proof were based on Republican suggestions and models), as a foreigner, an outsider, someone who bilked the American people into electing him when he is not actually American at all. He and his wife have been portrayed as “angry blacks” and as Muslims (which, in a democracy, should be irrelevant even if it were true, which it is not.) Several of his opponents have also accused him of being overly influenced by the “Kenyan ant-colonialist” politics of his father –as though being “anti-colonialist” was somehow intrinsically bad.

When someone points out how racist that rhetoric is, the common reply is that the real racists are those who are offended by it, including you for bringing it out; that decrying racism has somehow become racism. (See HERE for my discussion about “reverse-racism.”) These folks insist that Obama has stoked racial anger –among blacks. It is now white people, they insist, who are victims.

I think this should be called the “Archie Bunker Syndrome.” A large section (though by no means all) of White America has become a lot more open about their suspicion of other races and groups, and fearful that their privileged position is threatened; that growing rights, and political power, among people of color automatically translates into less power for the white majority, threatening to disrupt the whole social structure America was built on, and that those folks define their identity through. And boy are they pissed. Does that mean White America has grown more racist? Not really… it means that the institutional racism that many people tried to suppress in public, or even hide from themselves, has bubbled to the surface. Not because such folks are mean and hateful (though obviously some of them are), but because their sense of self –based on where they are on the hierarchy –is threatened, and it scares them. 

I can’t help thinking about Baldwin’s assertions about whiteness –that it is a concept defined against other things, and has no true identity of its own –when I reflect on the 2012 election. Obama –far more so than in 2008 –was portrayed by many as the dark, evil “other.” 60% of the white electorate opposed Obama and supported Romney because they approved of Romney’s –what, exactly? What was Romney running on? He was deliberately vague, refusing to divulge details about either himself or his plans. Except, of course, that whatever plan he actually followed would support the interests of the wealthy (“job-creators.”) In fact, that was the only thing anyone could be sure about in regards to this chameleon of a man- that his raison d’etre was to protect privilege. 

Romney’s entire campaign message, then, could be nailed down to two parts. A) Power (and money) should go to those at the top, and B) “Obama is bad, and I’m not him.” Mitt Romney was the living, breathing embodiment of critical race theory, whiteness theory, and the racialized power structure I have described in such detail. He really was the Whitest Man in America.

The presidential election of 2008 left me feeling very hopeful –but I was not one of those who believed it meant the “end of race.” I firmly believe that such a thing can only happen when enough people understand how race was created in this country, and how it works, and then actively disavow it. I was by no means surprised when racial division in this country got worse instead of better.


I believe, however, that 2012 may be the true turning point (though certainly not an endpoint.) Romney received 60% of the white vote, and in fact 95% of those who voted for him were white- his campaign strategy was to appeal directly to the majority of white people by playing on their fears, an approach that has worked well for Republicans since Nixon (and, to be fair, for Democrats before that.) He gambled that if his support among the white majority was overwhelming enough, it would counteract all the minorities put together. This was demonstrated in microcosm at the nominating conventions this summer: The Republican convention had a relative handful of minorities, mostly seated behind the speakers so the cameras would be sure to catch them, while the convention floor was, by all accounts, a sea of white (except, of course, for that black camerawoman who was subjected to racial taunts by people throwing peanuts at her.) The Democratic convention, in contrast, was like one of those human rainbows that has become such a cliché. White folks, Latinos, Asians, African Americans, Native Americans –not a handful of each lost in a white crowd, but a legitimate blend.

Romney’s gamble failed, as it turned out. Not just racial and ethnic minorities, but women, young people, blue collar whites from the industrial Midwest, all participated in a successful coalition to keep Barack Obama in office. Already, GOP strategists are making comments to the effect that their party can only survive if they reach out to other groups… cognizant as they are of the changing electorate in this country (in Reagan’s era, the white vote was 89% of that electorate; this year it is 72%, down from 74% in 2008, and it will continue to decline.)

I was also pleasantly surprised by some individual incidents during this election season. The three most racist people I know personally –all working class white males from the South, and all very close to me by ties of either blood or affection –all supported Barack Obama this time around, when they did not do so in 2008. They did so because they believed he had far more concern for the working class than did Romney, and all admitted they thought he had done the best anyone could’ve so far with the hand he had been dealt. This flies in the face of the numbers, of course- Romney’s support in the White South was overwhelming –but it boggles my mind that all three of these individuals chose class rather than race as their primary motivator, which is the sort of thing that, if more white working class people do it, will go a long way toward starting to dismantle that racial power structure.

People with “Archie Bunker Syndrome” are right, on one hand; America’s changing demography does threaten their place on top of that hierarchy of privilege. They are wrong, however, in fearing that or believing it to be a bad thing. White Americans are not destined to become a persecuted minority, as the O’Rileys and Buchanans would have us believe; not being “on top” does not equal persecution (although, to those used to being on top, it might feel like it.) No, White Americans will instead be the largest of several minority groups who have to learn to cooperate.

I spent several years earning a Ph.D. in U.S. History, with my primary focus being the study of race. I did this because I believe with all my heart it is extremely important, and that by using education as a tool it really is possible to one day dismantle the racial hierarchy in this country, even though such a project would take generations.

For the first time, I am beginning to think I may see a solid beginning to that project within my lifetime. I hope I am not proven wrong –though if I am, it will only be a temporary setback in the grand scheme of things.

For, as Dr. King told us, the arc of history may be long… but it bends toward justice.

UPDATE: It is now five years since I wrote this essay. Donald Trump is president, and the KKK and neo-Nazis are emboldened by his policies. I still think things will change for the better, but there is a heck of a lot more work to be done than I thought in 2012.

Some of my previous blogs:

Also- my novel about race in the 19th century, winner of the Spur Award:


  1. Well done. You can join Bill Clinton as Secretary of Explaining Things. Observing racism in the country, I've been reminded for a long time of Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN, who is invisible to whites because they see only a projection of some boogeyman that only lives in their own dark imagination.

  2. I was reminded of that book, Ron, when Clint Eastwood (whose work I love!) was talking to that empty chair.

  3. Mr. Smith, i would like to thank for your very brave and insightful essay. As a European who lived and worked in Notth Carolina for almost 10 years, I completely concur with your point of view. What's more is that i can vividly remember when this point of view was being branded as unamerican, another way of labeling someone with reverse racism. My hat off to you sir!

  4. I think there are a growing number of Americans, mostly working class (near the dividing line) who are beginning to get an intuitive understanding of racism and their own place in that dynamic. Perhaps it is because some white Americans are reading about demographics, and glancing over their shoulder, and realizing the melting pot is finally melting away the White majority. I think this is a good thing.

  5. This is very informative! Thanks for sharing.

    “Archie Bunker Syndrome.” lol

  6. From a fellow academic and historian (and fiction author), albeit of ancient Greece and Macedonia -- excellent job of showing the connection between history and hierarchy. Dealing with ancient Macedonia, I often field the issue of the (modern) Macedonian Question, and I teach a grad seminar called "Race, Gender and Sexuality," where we deconstruct each and reconsider how the ancient world either didn't have the concept (race and sexuality) or viewed it fairly differently (gender). By looking through the ancient lens with different categories, it can help students better understand modern categories in contrast. I may use at least the first half of your excellent essay above for that.

    Additionally, if you are not already aware of his work and you have an interest in it, may I recommend the work of the late Frank Snowden, particularly BLACKS IN ANTIQUITY and BEFORE COLOR PREJUDICE? Keep in mind when he was born. :-) I have to alert my students to the fact he grew up and worked in an era when "negroes" was perfectly acceptable. In any case, he may sometimes overdraw the positive view held, but overall, I find his work an excellent introduction to a very different view. The ancient Greeks were more likely to look down on the Thracians (essentially Gauls/Celts) than on the Ethiopians, much less the Egyptians, who were the one group of "Barbaroi" (non-Greeks) who never really lost their "high" status in Greek eyes, even after the Persian Wars.

  7. Thanks to all for your kind words- and especially to Mathetria for that very helpful Classical era info, and the reference- that's going to come in very handy for me. If you haven't already, I recommend for you a look at Gary Taylor's BUYING WHITENESS, which gives an excellent examination of the birth of racial concepts by looking at early modern British literature, among other things.

  8. Also, I go into far more detail on the material from the first part of this essay in an earlier blog,

  9. Thanks for the references, Troy. I've bookmarked your entry and noted BUYING WHITENESS.

    The fun thing about "cross-polenization" in academia is sharing good resources in fields that aren't one's specialty. :-) In that vein, another text that might prove interesting is Jonathan Hall's ETHNIC IDENTITY IN GREEK ANTIQUITY. To be honest, much of the book is a bit tedious, even for a Hellenist, but it's a very *careful* look at the construction of ethnic identity in the ancient world using the primary sources, and looking at the source's sources, as well as lining them up linearly. So, yeah, a bit tedious, but fascinating work. And I regularly assign students his Chapter 2 "The Nature and Expression of Ethnicity: an anthropological view." It details concepts like essentialist and constructionist views, race, etc. Much of it I suspect you'll already be well-familiar with, but my students often aren't. That chapter (and his intro/Chapter 1) might interest you in comparative terms. n As an American Indian-French/other mix who happens to study the Greeks/Macedonians/Persians, the notion of "constructing" identity fascinates me on both personal and professional levels. Add in "race" as part of that construct and it gets even better.

    Anyway, thank you for the book ref and links. And should you ever be looking for a regional history conference to present papers (and have some odd desire to visit Nebraska, ha), keep the Missouri Valley History Conference in mind. :-)

  10. Hi Troy.

    I would be glad to give another perspective on why racism is still abdominal problem in America today.