By Ron Walters
Election pundits have repeatedly asked why Barack Obama has trouble attracting blue collar Whites as if he created the problem and could solve it. Hillary is seldom asked why Blacks don’t vote for her, a problem she could solve. But it is interesting why blue collar Whites consistently vote against themselves, supporting Republicans who care little about their problems.
Part of the key lies in the fact that many such Whites (defined as those with no college and who make an average family income of under $50,000 per year) are like those in other classes who possess an attitude of racial supremacy. This has been important in maintaining a buffer between themselves and Blacks, keeping them on lowest rung in the socio-economic ladder.
The South has played a major role in harboring negative racial attitudes toward Blacks which is why Obama has attracted such a small percentage of Whites there, a surprise it seems to media commentators. But negative racial attitudes toward Blacks formed during slavery are still alive in the South and many of the sons and daughters of those who created this dynamic left the agricultural South and migrated North and helped to fertilize those areas.
Ronald Reagan was able to lead the movement of Whites who resented the presumed advantages that came to many Blacks through the policy of affirmative action and others who resent their children being educated in an integrated setting with Black children. As the Civil Rights movement pushed for racial equality, working class Whites and others pushed back in the 1980s and 1990s to maintain the Whiteness of their neighborhood institutions as much as possible, along with their dominance over economic opportunity.
Globalization and technological change, however, began to shrink the number of industrial jobs, touching off a fight for the crumbs left by corporations who fled the country.
Industrial jobs have remained stable at about 30 million, but they have been redistributed overseas, and to southern and western regions of the United States. And as the Black middle class grew, it challenged White lower middle class hegemony over many White collar jobs.
So, the tension created by job competition led to Blacks being blamed for White economic immobility in some places.
A deeper understanding of this issue requires reading such texts as, “The Possessive Investment In Whiteness” by George Lipsitz, who describes the tangible financial and psychological rewards that Whites get by their investment in White identity. And if Whiteness yields fewer hard economic returns, then the psychology of White supremacy may grow as a resource to hold on to.
The reason why blue collar Whites have trouble voting for Black candidates then, is that it would be a tangible concession that Blacks are not the cause of their condition, an admission that Blacks have an equal right to access social goods and most important, that they have as much right to posit the esteem of their own humanity as others do.
In the final analysis we do not know how many in the blue collar class we are talking about here, so their number, and therefore, their political importance may be over-estimated by those who worry about this problem. Obviously, their number cannot be as decisive as believed or Barack Obama would not have won as many Whites votes as he has to the extent that he is now leading in the popular vote. In any case, the political coalition that Mr. Obama has created, which includes middle and upper class Whites, youth, political independents, some Republicans and new voters, may be so potent that it reorganizes the Democratic party.
Blue collar Whites, a dwindling population, may only have a marginal effect on that political outcome—which looks like the future of the Democratic party.
Yet, blue collar Whites need to vote for a people politics that will deliver material goods now, not a party that opposes the minimum wage, school funding, job training and creation, and saving their houses—a politics of the past that bought their vote with the promise of psychological racial supremacy, but kept them at the margins of society.
(Ronald Walters is the director of the African American Leadership Center and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park. This column was distributed by NNPA.)