President of All The People? President Obama Reaches Out to Working Class Whites
Professor Mark Naison
At a critical point in his presidency, Barack Obama is quietly taking up steps to show white working class Americans, even those skeptical of or hostile to his Presidency, that he is President of all the people
Having a country music performance at the White House was one such step; calling the police officer who arrested Professor Henry Louis Gages, and inviting him to the White house for a beer, was another.
At a time when President Obama is staking his credibiity on putting through comprehensive health care legislation, such actions are designed to win points with a constituency that he desperately needs in his corner to pass such legislation
But it is also a response to a campaign by Republicans and conservatives- launched right after the Sonia Sotomayor appoinment- to paint President Obama as someone willing to sacrifice the interests of working class and middle class whites to advance minority interests
Seizing on Judge Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" remarks, and her rejection of a reverse discirmination lawsuit by a white firefighter in New Haven, Republicans have stoked fears among working class whites that President Obama's real agenda- the classic "liberal" agenda- is to pull them down so minorities can rise up,
Given the historic effectiveness of such attacks on Affirmative Action- made by leaders from George Wallace to Rudy Guiliani- and the visceral hatred of racial preferences among large sections of the white population, it is not surprising that the Republican campaign to portray Obama as biased against whites
has begun to gain traction.
When you add to that the controversy over President Obama's comment that the arrest of Professor Gates was "stupid," ( which it WAS!) you can easily imagine the content of the appeal to white racial fears that conservatives are launching on the airwaves and in the halls of Congress.
" First President Obama shows contempt for our firefighters, now he insults our police? What kind of president is it that is willing to ignore the sacrifices of the bravest of Americans, those who put their lives on the line for us every day, just because they are white? "
Could these arguments work? You bet they could!!
As someone who coached baseball and basketball in Brooklyn with cops and firemen for more than
fifteen years in the 80's and 90's, and who has taught a course on Affirmative Action for more than ten, I can tell you first hand, that incredible numbers of blue collar whites are convinced that liberal and minority politicians are trying to take what they earned through hard work and sacrifice and give it away to less deserving people. No one should underestimate the power of these feelings. The white sense of "victimization" when it comes to affirmative action, is every bit as powerful as what blacks and latinos expersss about their continued vulnerability to racism, and when you put the two groups in the same room
in open and honest discussion, the results can be explosive.
The long and short of it is that President Obama cannot afford to be seen, among a key portion of the American public, especially a portion that will benefit from his health care reforms, his labor legislation,
and many other Presidential initiatives, as the second coming of Al Shapton and Jesse Jackson.
This is why he had to move so fast to defuse the controversy over the Gates arrest, and reach out to the police officer who made the arrest.
This is why he had a country music event at the White House
And this is why I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he showed up at an event on the NASCAR circuit.
Some might call this pandering to racists and reactionaries, but I see it as something much more subtle and powerful- steps towards reinventing an American community which crosses racial boundaries and creates new definitions of the public interest
And what give it credibility is the substance of the Presidents reforms. No one who looks closely at his health care proposals can suggest that these are programs which benefit the minority poor at the expense of working class and middle class whites. They are proposals which benefit working class people of all races and nationalities, in large part by shifting the tax burden to finance health care to the wealthiest people in the society.
The steotypical conservative attack on liberals- they give to the have nots by taking from the have littles-
does not remotely describe any component of President Obama's health care proposals, or any other part of his programs.
But the emotional reasonance such attacks have- even when they are innaccurate- are still enormous
That is why President Obama has reached out- and must keep reaching out- to the people who believe that they have always been the victims of liberal policies.
He needs their support to pass his health care proposals, and he needs them at the table for any
real conversation about race
When all is said and done, it this kind of inclusiveness that may best define his Presidency
July 25, 2009