Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Contributor Terry Smith: Transracial Universalism

Obama’s “transracial universalism,” as Randall Kennedy calls it in The Persistence of the Color Line, assumes something about White voters that history doesn’t bear out.  It assumes that White voters are capable of ascertaining and willing to vote their own self-interests.  If they can’t or won’t, there’s little point is seeking non-racial common ground, for that common ground will remain obstructed to White voters.

The 2008 presidential contest is instructive.  Even when the country was on the brink of an economic depression; even after the Republican brand had been badly damaged by eight years under George W. Bush; and even against a Republican nominee who recklessly selected a running mate with neither the background nor intellect to lead a country, more than 55% of White voters voted for John McCain. If ever there were a moment when transracial universalism should have taken root, it was during the perfect storm of 2008.

To be sure, Obama assembled a winning coalition from that storm, but not without significant caveats.  If one examines regional and demographic data from the election, certain misperceptions are dissipated.  For instance, while it is true that Obama took the female vote, McCain actually carried the White female vote.  This is important because the media portrays females as more liberal and amenable to a candidate like Obama—and hence more likely to entertain transracial universalism.  But while White women were somewhat more likely to support Obama than White men in 2008, Black women were twice as likely to support Obama as White women.  In other words, once we refract the election results through race, we begin to see a basic reluctance on the part of White voters to find common ground with Blacks even when Whites are suffering severely, as they were in 2008.

Which leads to another questionable assumption of transracial universalism:  that Americans can transcend race without first grappling with racism and its lingering effects. Race is always a subtext for national elections in the United States.  It speaks whether or not a candidate like Obama speaks back to it.  The South, teeming with poor and under-educated Whites, delivered abysmal results for Obama in 2008.  Surely many  White southerners have a vested interest in the progressive, race-neutral themes sounded by Obama as a candidate.  But not even the precipice of a depression could pry them from their self-defeating habit of supporting Republicans who work against their economic interests.  To the extent that race misguides them, confronting race is a pre-condition to transracial universalism.  Contrary to the way President Obama has attempted to govern, transracial universalism is not a means of race avoidance.

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