Monday, June 23rd, 2008

The Politics of Identity Politics

Last weekend’s Washington Post/ABC poll of white and Black voters racial attitudes revealed, well, not much at all.

The headline was “3 in 10 Americans Admit To Racial Bias”. According to this poll, when asked the useless question of whether one experiences “feelings of personal racial prejudice”, Blacks (34% of respondents) rate worse than whites (30%). (I say Black respondents are more truthful. Meanwhile, yellow and brown apparently are still not worth polling at all.)

But the piece really focused on some obscure “racial sensitivity index” whose methodology apparently couldn’t be fully disclosed for fear someone might actually call b.s. on it. According to this fantastical statistical invention, whites who have a Black friend on speed-dial, just bought a brownstone in Harlem, and have downloaded a Weezy mixtape in the last 3 years are about 20% more likely to vote for Barack Obama thank their Lil Abner cousins.

(In the fog of a rowdy Saturday night wedding reception, I watched Sunday morning pundits making big hay of this “fact”. Not to stereotype unfairly, but White Northeastern pundits shouldn’t be so self-congratulatory. If I was a Southern white, well, I guess I wouldn’t hate ’em any less than I do now. You see? I don’t stereotype unfairly.)

So after creating a thoroughly bunk way of measuring how racist white American voters actually are–the numbers go: 21% “congratulations you’re not racist”, 50% “you’re pretty much not racist or probably you are a little”, and 29% “you’re embarrassing to us so please stay home unless John King needs to interview you”–much of the poll’s conclusions are completely useless.

Or just plain tiresome. Of the racially insensitive 29%, the Post intones, “Obama has some convincing to do…” Yes, colored folk–when your boss calls you a terrorist-fist-bumping radical Muslim baby daddy, you must excuse him and tell him nicely no, he’s wrong, would he like to have a conversation about it. (Please excuse us if we spit instead.)

What was news to me was that the gaps in perceptions of race relations are as bad as they were on the eve of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

More than six in 10 African Americans now rate race relations as “not so good” or “poor,” while 53 percent of whites hold more positive views. Opinions are also divided along racial lines, though less so, on whether blacks face discrimination.


After Katrina, No Child Left Behind, Incarceration Nation, and two oil wars, it’s apparently more difficult than ever to find any consensus that race relations aren’t so great and racial discrimination still exists.

That’s not just depressing, it’s “two Americas” depressing to both of my consciousnesses.

But wait it gets worse.

To wit:

Many think Obama has the potential to transform current racial politics. Nearly six in 10 believe his candidacy will shake up the racial status quo, for better or worse.

African Americans are much more optimistic than whites on this score: Sixty percent said Obama’s candidacy will do more to help race relations, compared with 38 percent of whites.

Is it possible that Blacks–and the great, underpolled mass of Latinos and Asian Americans (who will likely vote Obama in much greater majorities than whites)–place too much faith that Obama can reverse the national course on institutional racism?

And why are whites–who say they are overwhelmingly ready to elect a “Black president” (one almost hears the caveat “if he’s qualified” being attached like a reflex)–less likely to believe that race relations will get better if Obama wins? Do they know what’s in the Kool-Aid? Or are they are sober about what may happen if Obama actually challenges white privilege?

It’s impossible not to appreciate the kind of Jackie Robinson-like line Barack Obama must walk right now in this campaign. All of this comes in the face of the growing list of white pundits who would presume to lecture Obama on just how to win white voters, from the soccer moms to the lunchpail dads. Yes, forget all you’ve heard about angry feminists and people of color and feminists of color, because here are the real identity politics at work.

For as unilluminating as this poll is, it poses a key question for Obama’s supporters and anyone concerned with racial justice, not just “feelings of racial prejudice”: how do you find and engage those who don’t want to know what change really looks like?

posted by @ 9:57 am | 1 Comment

One Response to “The Politics of Identity Politics”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Jeff. Brilliant. I was trying to ignore the poll (and racist America) this week, but reading your analysis makes it clear why I can’t.



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