Class, Power & Voting

Because election fever has overtaken my brain, I’ve been neglecting the issues I usually talk about here: poverty, urban development, housing, inequality, and post-Katrina New Orleans. (That my blog readership is way up reinforces the notion that no one likes to talk about poor people.  Sigh.)  So I pass the mike to Prof. Peter Dreier from Occidental College, who I recently saw speak at a conference where he urged those college kids who could afford it to drop out of school this fall and organize voters for the election.

Dreier sums up a great deal of what I’ve been studying these last four years – in the context of class, power and voting patterns. His point of departure is Obama’s re-hashing of the meme about working-class white (WCW) resentment – one I picked up happily as it gave me an opening to embrace the good and bad about my roots. Dreier points out that although WCW racism and prejudices held by all middle- and lower-income social groups exist, it is the institutional power of wealthy whites that perpetuates structural racism and inequality – a system upheld in the voting booth year after year. He writes:

…let’s be clear about the class nature of racial prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and disparities. Wealthy whites are more likely than working-class whites to use the race card in the voting booth. Voting statistics reveal that most upper-income whites consistently vote in Republican, not Democratic, primaries, which means they don’t have to vote for black or Latino candidates. And in partisan run-off elections, wealthy whites overwhelmingly vote for Republican over Democratic contenders. [He goes on to sample supply voting data by income categories.]

…in an Obama-McCain face-off fewer wealthy whites will vote for Obama than working-class whites whom affluent pundits are so quick to label as racist. Indeed, we’ve already seen a significant number of blue-collar white voters show their support for Obama in Iowa, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and other states. Yes, white working-class Democrats in economically troubled Ohio favored Clinton over Obama. But in November, most of the blue-collar Democrats, working-class independents, and union members who voted for Clinton — in Ohio and elsewhere — are likely to switch to Obama, not McCain.

It is understandable that most wealthy whites would consistently vote for Republicans, who like low taxes and hate strong unions. But in recent decades, a significant number of working-class whites — the so-called “Reagan Democrats” — have voted for GOP candidates who have done so little to address their bread-and-butter concerns. As Thomas Frank argued in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the Republicans have successfully used “wedge” issues — abortion, religion, gun control, gay rights, affirmative action, and, of course, the war on terrorism — to persuade some working-class whites to vote against their economic interests.

But the tide seems to be changing.

By focusing on voting behavior and attitudes, however, political pundits deflect focus away from other fundamental concerns. America’s corporate and political rulers have long used racism, ethnic stereotypes, and immigrant bashing to divide working people and weaken their collective power. Manufacturers recruited Southern blacks to act as strikebreakers in Northern cities, and employers warned “No Irish need apply” and resorted to anti-Semitism to pit workers against each other. In hard economic times, scapegoating against blacks and Hispanic immigrants diverts white workers’ attention away from the failure of business and political elites to create enough decent jobs.

Although working-class white Americans may harbor racist sentiments, they do not control the major institutions that are responsible for America’s racial divide, including the economic forces that sometimes pit white, black, and Hispanic working families against each other for jobs, housing, and decent schools.

in every sphere of American life — income, hiring, promotion, housing, the quality of public schools, college attendance, treatment by the criminal justice system, media portrayals, and others — race remains a divisive issue. While upper-middle class pundits may get some smug pleasure out of pointing to racial prejudice among America’s white working-class voters, they would be more accurate if they looked up, rather than down, the economic ladder to identify who really has the power to prop up, or fix, the institutions that turn bigotry into discrimination.

It’s worth reading the whole thing. This is where my worries flare up that current Clinton supporters – should she not get the nomination – will fall for the “Maverick McCain” meme rather than supporting Obama/the Democratic nominee. We cannot let that happen.


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