By Matt Birkhold
[giantmag.com originally featured this article on March 27, 2008]
My father has been a “Jesse Jackson is a pain in the ass” Republican since at least the Carter years. I was shocked to hear that he plans on voting for Barack Obama.
Up until very recently I’ve felt like I pretty much had my people figured out. Throughout college and graduate school, my father and I argued endlessly about the ethics of racial equality. He never supported race-based preferences because he believed they unfairly privileged black people. My father is not unique. His position is deeply rooted in a common belief among white men that they have been victimized by black gains over the last fifty years.
We see black folks as mere things that take jobs from us and threaten our chances of getting into the best schools. As a result, white communities resent Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others who resist racism. For that reason, among others, I believed that white people would never vote for Barack Obama. My father changed that.
About six weeks ago, my father told me that he liked Obama. “I don’t know much about his politics, and I don’t give a damn,” he said. “All I know is that Obama’s different from these damn zealots who have been in office for the last sixteen years and who won’t support you if, on a checklist of forty-seven items, you disagree on two.”
Wow, I thought, white people are so tired of the direction the country is headed in that they’re willing to support a black man. How the hell did that happen? Then I realized, the country’s decline was too simple an explanation.
White people, including my father, are supporting Obama because he has completely detached himself from the Civil Rights establishment. Activists like Jesse and Al represent what white people believe we’ve lost. While Civil Rights leaders attack us, Obama empathizes with us.
Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia opened the door to a new racial politics for white people. Obama clearly and courageously confronted white racism when he said that the real culprits behind white job losses were US corporate culture and Washington lobbyists–not black people.
When he 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,” he showed white people he understands us, and more importantly, that he cares. In a world where white people commonly think that any mention of race will get them called racist, a black man who empathizes with whites, yet calls us on our racism, provides white people with the opportunity to change.
Obama did the most important thing an educator can to change minds. He met people where they are, offered a critique of that place, and then gave them a way to move forward. He played to white people’s beloved notion of racial progress when he said that Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s mistake was not that he talked about race, but that he talked about race and the nation as if they were unchanging and static.
He brought us together when he said that white resentment of nonwhites for job competition and growing black resentment of immigrants for the same reason are backward. He moved us forward when he said, “the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.”
Obama’s analysis of the problem is virtually the same as that of the Communist Party USA’s in the 1920s–while offering a vastly different solution. If the millions of whites who share my father’s position on race-based preferences also share his despair at the direction the country is heading, Obama’s new approach to race may be what gets him elected. This is not because white people want to talk about race. Rather, Obama’s speech shows that he understands us—and our problems.
Matt Birkhold is a Brooklyn based independent scholar and educator. His work appears regularly in Wiretap and he has also written for The Nation and Mother Jones. He is founder of Political Education Outreach Collective and editor of the forthcoming National Hip Hop Political Convention publication, Elements. He can be reached at email@example.com.