Barack Obama on White Privilege: And Why Progressives Need to Listen

Berating the resentful among the white working class for their bigotry would, without question, lead any of them who were listening to stop, and to dismiss the speaker as someone who just doesn't get them.
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President Barack Obama gives a thumbs-up to supporters as he arrives at McCarran International Airport on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
President Barack Obama gives a thumbs-up to supporters as he arrives at McCarran International Airport on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Race. Class. Resentment. Taken together, this cocktail has the potential to do more damage to the progressive cause - the best hope, mind you, of combating the racism and class warfare that drive the resentment - than just about any other. We've got (mostly) white anxiety about the demographic changes to our population; we've got resentment about racial discrimination, and, in the opposite direction, about active measures taken to counteract its continued existence as well as the lasting effects of past discrimination. In order to win support for progressive solutions, we're going to have to talk about these issues in ways that feel right - even if not fully satisfying - to members of different ethnic groups. That's not easy, but it's doable.

First, let's talk about the not easy part. I recently found myself hearing two sets of progressives discuss these issues in an (online) forum, and although they almost certainly agreed on the reality of racial discrimination, they talked right past each other in terms of how to talk about resentment, specifically to white working class voters. The discussion began around a Public Religion Research Institute survey showing that white Americans working in non-salaried jobs and lacking a college degree were significantly more likely than those with a college degree to "believe that blacks and other minorities have received too many advantages and government attention." This was especially true in the South.

The person presenting the information rightly highlighted the facts showing that such a belief - one that assumes we've left behind bigotry and discrimination - bears no resemblance to reality. Others in the dialogue, while agreeing on that fact, shifted to point out that those white working class people were reacting negatively to what appeared to be a narrowing of their opportunities (aided, I would add, by right-wing demagogues who feed that perception) and were not seeing - or not interested in - the historical and moral justifications for affirmative action and other attempts to rectify injustice. We progressives, I would argue, must work to change that perception in order to win elections and get the opportunity to implement our policy solutions.

Along these lines, one of the responders argued: "It is, bluntly, Pollyannish to expect such a person, struggling for survival in the current economy, to not be receptive to the argument that they are being penalized for being classed as "white."" Another stated that no amount of hectoring from antiracists would "convince someone to plausibly make their life more difficult to give someone they don't know a leg up over things such people might not feel responsible for and that seem rather distant either geographically or chronologically." Both argued for an approach that focused on expanding the slice of the economic pie available to all working-class Americans.

Here's where the disconnect occurred: The author of the original post about the survey replied by repeating the truth about why affirmative action exists and then characterized those who expressed resentment over affirmative action as "a group of spoiled brats who got all the toys now complaining that they have to share a little bit." The responder agreed about the moral and historical justifications for measures such as affirmative action and endorsed their continuation, but then added that people who are themselves working class aren't likely to recognize themselves as "privileged" or "advantaged" because of where they sit on the economic food chain right now.

The original author then essentially said those people's concerns were not his and he wasn't interested in "entertaining their false beliefs in bogeymen and ghosts like "quotas" or "reverse racism."" The author added that he refuses to have any: "sympathy for people, as a class, i.e. working class whites, who have been benefiting from white skin privilege for centuries." A final counterpoint made by another responder: "loss of privilege -even when the privilege was never deserved - still feels like loss. That's the root of a lot of the "reverse discrimination" stuff."

This discussion - one in which the two sides agree on much and in which both speak important truths - crystallizes the chasm between the two ways of looking at race, class, and resentment: moralist and realist. To win elections we must bridge that rhetorical gap. It is not impossible. We need a rhetoric that recognizes the realities of racism but which also acknowledges the validity of how working-class whites feel. Fortunately, this is exactly the approach taken by President Barack Obama.

Obama addressed these issues most directly in his Philadelphia race speech. On white privilege, he stated: "most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." That doesn't mean he believes that they haven't been privileged, but that's beside the point for the purpose of winning their support for his policies. The President also said "to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns--this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding." By this point he has, hopefully, established some credibility with the resentful whites he is trying to reach. He has established that he has empathy for their position.

Having done so, Obama can then deliver some truths: "Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism." He added: "these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze." This, I would argue, is a far more effective way to win white support both for universal measures to improve the lives of working-class Americans and for specific measures to counteract the all too real effects of discrimination non-whites still face.

Berating the resentful among the white working class for their bigotry would, without question, lead any of them who were listening to stop, and to dismiss the speaker as someone who just doesn't get them. Speaking the way Obama did is far less satisfying - as nuance always is initially - but his election suggests that it worked in 2008. We'll find out more in November.

As progressives, we must not dismiss the perspectives of white working class voters - even those who express racial resentments - any more than we do the perspective of non-white voters, because we need to win their votes. We have to convince these white voters that their interests lie not in allying themselves with the economic elites against minorities, but in coming together and creating a broad, multiethnic coalition of Americans united. This is the truth, and it is what Obama seeks to do. Such a coalition can be the driving force for real change, for policies that benefit members of all ethnic groups while ensuring equal opportunities for all Americans.

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