Sunday, April 27, 2008

Appalachian Racism and Obama

DHinMI at Kos has a nice post today about Appalachian racism and Obama. He's right--there is a huge contingent of old white people from Appalachia who are simply not going to vote for a black man under any circumstances. This is a serious issue for the 2008 election that deserves more attention.

I used to spend a lot of time in Tennessee, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. I knew some fantastic people who were really progressive on a lot of issues, especially when it came to economics and social programs. But they were racist. That was always a tough contradiction to deal with. Great on some issues and potentially loyal Democrats. Except for their commitment to white supremacy. These are the people Obama can't win over. Sadly, and this does not reflect badly on her, this is also a core segment of Hillary voters. There's not much she can do about it and maybe it's not her place to do so, but she is being pushed toward the nomination by a lot of racists. Not exclusively so of course. But that's a big chunk of her base.

This issue has come up when discussing Appalachia because it is there that Hillary has won by such large majorities. But it's that way in much of the rest of the country as well. The difference is that Appalachia is very white and very old. Pennsylvania and West Virginia are two of the three states in the country with the oldest populations (Florida is not surprisingly #1). This is also an unusually white part of America.

People often forget about racism in Appalachia for a couple of reasons. First, they mostly don't think of Appalachia at all. Ignorance about the region allows for mountaintop removal operations to take place with almost no opposition from the environmental community at all. Second, when they think of racism, they think of the Deep South. Because Appalachia resisted the Confederacy, many smart people don't see the area as having the historical racism of Mississippi and South Carolina. But that's just not true. The prototypical historical figure of Appalachia, and the one that can best help us understand the region today, is Andrew Johnson. Johnson opposed the Confederacy not because he thought racism was bad. He opposed it because like many Appalachian residents, he resented the dominance big planters had over small white farmers. Thus, when Johnson sought to kill Reconstruction as President, he did so in part because with the big planters destroyed, he could make common cause with them to oppose black rights. Appalachian residents have largely seen their region as a white man's area and always wanted to keep it that way.

The racism that older Appalachian whites feel is reflected across the nation in the hearts and minds of old white people. This is repulsive to many people. It has the very negative consequence of potentially costing Obama the 2008 election. First, he is getting beat down by the never ending primary cycle. It so happens that many of these states are late in the cycle and are helping to keep Clinton alive. West Virginia is going to go huge for Clinton. Kentucky may do so as well, but Louisville could allow Obama to pull it out. Democrats in western North Carolina are really bad on race too, but they will be outnumbered by the African-American populations in the eastern part of the state and in the cities. Moreover, it could throw the election to McCain. Despite what many Democratic writers are saying, many of these voters are not going to vote for Obama if he wins the nomination. They will vote for McCain.

On the other hand, this is also the chance for a national conversation on race that we continue to try and avoid. Obama can't bring the subject up at all without everyone being reminded of his pastor (the horror!). Yet, an Obama nomination is going to force the issue. We already see the forces of racism rising each day. But young people are largely sickened by this. This conversation will have a strong generational aspect to it as well. Thirty years of Black History Month and the Cult of King has made a real difference in fighting racism. Although it is not hard to find racist young white people, it becomes less acceptable each day. (Homophobia is undergoing a similar transformation but it remains a good 15-20 years behind the fight against racism. Sexism on the other hand seems as strong as ever).

The next six months then are likely to include a whole lot of talk on race. Older whites don't like this because they are going to look very bad. They are also going to vote for John McCain. How will this play on in the election? It's hard to say. But I do feel that this election could be a sort of last gasp of white supremacy in this nation. Perhaps it will even win. But a last gasp I think it will be and by 2012 or 2016, an African-American candidate will face a lot less of the overt racism Obama faces.