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Can Obama win over the white working class?

Commentary by Organizer KD

Can Obama win over the white working class? This is a question the media has devoted a lot of space to. In just one example worth looking at an Washington Post article asks, “Can He Be a Working Class hero?” But if the title was accurate it would read, ‘can he be a WHITE working class hero?’ The primary issue is related to the racism emanating from a sizable section of the white working class and the other issue is the unwillingness to point out whiteness in a prominent way within the title of an article whose main focus is the white working class.

The framework of debate around this question has narrowly focused on what Obama and the Democrats have to do to court the white working class. This isn’t necessarily strange considering that is exactly what politicians do to gain potential votes, but a question that isn’t being asked is why would the white working class vote in their racial interests and what compelling reason is there to continue another term of Republican rule? George W. Bush has clearly shown himself to be an enemy of working people; whether it was the Enron scandal, his bloated military budget and creation of a new federal department, Homeland Security (funneling tons of money into costs like offices, supplies, etc.), the continued lay-offs of workers and rising unemployment, the current housing crisis, where many people are losing their homes to foreclosures due in part to predatory lending practices, or the proposed 700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street and finance capital. So why would any working person vote for John McCain, whose voting record was the same as Bush’s 90% of the time, not to mention his recent comment about the fundamentals of the economy being strong. I can understand if large sectors of the white working class were rejecting both political parties, but the majority of the white working class is not necessarily liberal, forget about radical (unless perhaps you’re talking about right wing radicalism).

Unfortunately the racism and white supremacy often shown amongst sizable sectors of the white working class has deep historical roots. Time and time again working class and poor whites have been used as a tool to maintain white supremacy. In the late 1600s there was a series of laws passed to create qualitative distinctions between black and white labor. Black slaves were to be held in life-long hereditary slavery, where white servants were held for a finite amount of time, 5 years. Also, many former white servants were given access to land that was stolen from Native Americans, allowing them the privilege to own property. Labor union practices of the mid 1800s created unions for skilled workers distinct from common laborers and the skilled unions would exclude black folks.

These historical precedents helped to instill and compel a sense of individualism in white folks (particularly working class and poor whites). Rather than build a collective consciousness with folks of color to target the true source of their economic instability (whether it was plantation owners, big northern capitalists, or big business-depending on the time frame) the white skin privilege they were granted allowed working and poor whites to look for individual relief through slightly better paying jobs and/or the possibility for private ownership of land and property.

The series of laws written in late 1600s really helped to entrench white supremacy amongst all sectors of white folks. Many times working class and poor whites (men) were relied upon to forcefully suppress African slaves. They would constitute the militias as well as heading up slave patrols. And by allowing white (again, men) indentured servants access to stolen land, after their time was served, the seeds of the “American Dream” were planted. This laid the groundwork for ALL white folks to have better material conditions than black folks and to develop a sense of racial superiority. Given this, psychologically, it was easy for poor whites to rationalize their living conditions by saying, that ‘I may be poor, but at least I’m white.’ Even after slavery was abolished white folks saw “freed” black folks as a direct threat to their own labor opportunities and some whites started race riots targeting black folks. In my own experience growing up I witnessed this sentiment amongst working class white friends who would say things like ‘they are taking all of our jobs.’ ‘They,’ of course, refers to folks of color.

The Republican Party has continued to parlay these antagonisms into votes. Ronald Reagan was able to secure a large segment of votes from the white working class in 1984. Pat Buchanan, in his “Culture War” speech during the 1992 RNC essentially called the white working class part of the Republican base. Reactionary sentiments like ‘they are taking all our jobs’ are at the root of the current antagonism towards Obama where working folks vote based on their racial allegiances, rather than on the actual program of the candidate.

The individualism displayed by many white American workers plagues our ability to challenge white supremacy and represents a challenge to all folks that call themselves white anti-racists. We have an opportunity now to have these dialogues with people and prepare ourselves to build beyond November because, while I strongly prefer an Obama presidency than a McCain presidency, fighting white supremacy is not about individual strength, it’s about collective power. Let’s lay the groundwork for that now.

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