Whiteness in the Age of Obama
The Huffington Post
Jedediah Purdy, Professor of Law
Recall the numbers: 59 percent of white voters supported Romney. More dramatically, 88 percent of his votes came from whites. One simple but plausible analysis suggested that Obama won a majority of white votes only in New England, New York, and Hawaii. His national share of the white vote fell by several points after four years in which Republicans, especially the Tea Party, worked relentlessly to be the party of whiteness.
As I’ve noted before (and so have lots of others), this was the barely-concealed meaning of Tea Party claims that Obama was not American, not constitutionally the president, somehow deeply alien. These ideas are so unmoored from reality that they have to be approached as symptoms, not positions. Race was also much of the meaning of tying Obama to food stamps, and of (barely less public) assertions that health care reform was a giveaway from white taxpayers to black dependents.
Those notorious maps showing the overlap between Romney states and the old Confederacy take on a grim extra plausibility when you consider that Obama seems to have taken less than 20 percent of the white vote in the core states of the Deep South—Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. I’m reminded of the friend in West Virginia who told me, back in 1988, that one reason to support Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primary was that he could pick out his solitary vote when the local newspaper printed the results.
But consider: whiteness, like any other racial category, is a made-up thing. It is a matter of what people do, not what they are. (Social construction is the clunky academic name for this.) Like other made-up things, it changes. Obama’s share of the youth vote in swing states like Virginia, Florida, and Ohio was so high that clearly, somewhere around age 30, a majority of white people started supporting the president. Romney’s success with old people isn’t just a matter of the fact that America used to be much more white. It’s that white people used to be much more white—in the Mitt Romney sense of white. Whiteness, too, is changing. What might it become?…
…Race in the age of Obama
There are many ways to look at Barack Obama, a fact that has been both a strength and a weakness in his political career. One of those, one he invites and seems to believe, is that he is a man who made a pair of deliberate choices: to be black and to be American, to identify with both those traditions and to braid their hopes more tightly together. This is the conclusion of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and it has rippled through a good deal of what he has done and said as President.
That American identity is open to this kind of choice is one of the best things about it. That Obama’s claim to stand at the center of American identity has inspired so much resistance is a sign of the value of that central place, of its being—sometimes tragically—worth fighting over.
All of us who live in Obama’s age are, more or less explicitly, engaged in the same problem: how to orient ourselves to an American identity that no longer has its old center. The change, the beginning of overcoming the America-is-whiteness myth, is overdue and entirely right.
Maybe that identity will be more comfortably hybrid. American civic myth has always involved the fantasy of purity. The Pilgrims were righteous, goes the myth. So were the Revolutionaries. The Founders were wise and beneficent. The Constitution is full of moral truth. Our wars are good wars.
There is a strange half-rhyme between that fantasy of purity and the fantasy of race, especially the bad old idea that whiteness contains something special, rare, and pure—an idea few will say in public anymore, but which still echoes in our racially divided politics. These myths had many victims, most obviously those whom they defined as not quite, or not at all, American. More subtly, they mutilated history itself. They cost everyone the chance at an honest start to understanding the present by appreciating the past…
Read the entire article here.