Monday, April 21, 2008

You don’t know me (Part I): Tackling disturbing memes from the 2008 presidential election

I’m sick of condescension. And it is rampant in the 2008 presidential election. I’m sick of hearing other people attempt to explain my values, beliefs, biases and motivations through the lens of their own values, beliefs, biases and motivations. I am tired of men explaining the female vote, whites explaining the black vote, and Beltway/New York City talking heads explaining what folks in the Heartland think. To the punditocracy (and, yes, even some of my fellow bloggers): You don’t know me.

You don’t know me, so stop speaking as if you do. I know everyone has a right to an opinion. And I understand that in America everyone has a right to voice their opinion. But your opinion is not fact. And your certainty about who I am offends.

As a black woman living in Indiana, the two condescending memes that aggravate me most are 1) Barack Obama has the majority of the black vote because he is black, and 2) Midwesterners aren’t much on the book learnin’—a smart politician best speak real slow and keep it simple to get in with Hoosiers, Buckeyes and their ilk.

I’ll tackle black-on-black voting in this post. What bothers me about this bit of conventional wisdom?

It positions black voters as an immature electorate.

The idea that black people will vote for a black candidate irrespective of the issues is demeaning. What must that unsophisticated thought process be like?

Black voter: What will the candidate do about healthcare? How will the candidate solve the country’s economic woes? What is the candidate’s stance on the Iraq War? Who cares? He’s a brother!

It is astonishing that so many believe black voters—no matter how educated and politics-savvy—would not weigh the issues as part of their decision-making process. Perhaps people conflate the black community’s excitement about the prospect of the first-ever black president with a belief that history-making potential is a worthy reason to vote for someone.

In a recent online political thread—the one that prompted this post as a matter of fact—a commenter offered that it is natural for black people to vote for others of their race. After all, we share the same values. Yes, this would be understandable if it were true. The black community is not a monolith. Our values are as influenced by class, education, geography and other factors as any person’s. In fact, much was made of the recent Pew Research Center report that revealed "African-Americans say they can no longer be seen as a single race. Work ethic and education are creating a class divide. Nearly 40 percent of low-income blacks say they have nothing in common with middle-income and poor blacks." As regrettable as these results are, surely they are evidence that we do not all posses the same values. For the most part, African Americans are not “values voters.” If we were, we would not nearly unanimously support the Democratic Party. Surely my socially conservative brothers and sisters might give the Republican Party a whirl.

“Nice PC essay,” I hear you saying. “But look at the numbers. Barack Obama is getting 70 to more than 90 percent of the black vote in Democratic state primaries!”

Well, that brings me to the second reason I reject the black-folks-always-vote-for-black-folks meme.

Interpretation of the numbers often ignores crucial facts and reflects racial bias.

Yes, Barack Obama has the vast majority of black support TODAY, but it was not always so. It is interesting to Google “Barack Obama” and “black vote.” Results include:

Obama’s Appeal to Blacks Remains an Open Question (Jan. 2007)

Can Barack Obama Win the Black Vote? (Feb. 2007)

So Far, Obama Can’t Take Black Vote for Granted (Feb. 2007)

Barack Obama’s Black Wakeup Call (October 2007)

Why Barack Obama is Losing the Black Vote (October 2007)

Black Voters See New Generation Gap (Jan. 2008)

For more than a year, the media fretted that African Americans had not immediately boarded the Obama love train. That blacks were firmly in the Clinton camp was a disconnect that pundits endlessly obsessed over.

Hillary Clinton is overwhelmingly popular with black voters, drawing higher approval ratings than the only major African-American candidate running for president, according to a study released today by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Clinton's own record as First Lady and New York senator -- along with her marriage to former President Bill Clinton, who is very popular among black voters -- earned her an 83 percent approval rating among likely black voters, compared to 75 percent who ranked Illinois Senator Barack Obama positively, the study said. (SOURCE)
But, after the South Carolina primary, when Barack Obama won nearly 80 percent of the black vote, the narrative changed to:

After South Carolina: Can Obama Capture a Wider Swath of Voters? (Jan. 26, 2008)

What galvanized black voters behind Barack Obama? It was, in large part, Hillary Clinton’s perceived decision to use the Southern Strategy to fight her black opponent. To name just a few of Clinton’s ill-conceived tactics: There was Bill Clinton’s sly comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson; the distribution of a photo of Obama in Somali dress; the use of black surrogates to take pot shots at Obama; darkening Obama’s image in a campaign ad; Geraldine Ferraro; and the positioning of Obama as an unqualified affirmative action candidate taking a position from its rightful white recipient.

Ignoring Clinton’s race-baiting unfairly absolves her campaign while placing the “blame” for Obama’s support on the alleged unsophisticated practices of the black community.

Assuming that black voters use race as a primary motivator also means holding African Americans to a different standard than their white counterparts. What does it mean when white people vote en masse for white candidates? How much time has been spent parsing that? Today, a Reuters story revealed:

While most black voters in Pennsylvania will back Obama in Tuesday's crucial presidential primary, only about 35 percent of whites have said they will vote for him, compared with the 53 percent of whites who say they will back Hillary Clinton, according to a Newsmax/Zogby poll published on Thursday. (SOURCE)
Now if you apply the conventional wisdom about the black electorate to the voters of the Newsmax/Zogby poll, white Pennsylvanians are clearly voting for Hillary Clinton because she is white. But the article discusses voter concern about patriotism, arrogance, guns and elitism—not racial motivations. You see, these voters have REASONS for not backing Obama. The blacks-always-vote-for-blacks meme assumes blacks have no good reasons for choosing Obama over Hillary Clinton.

For the numbers folks, here are some more facts to consider:

In previous presidential races, blacks have not necessarily aligned as a bloc behind black candidates. Take the 2004 campaign, which included both Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun. Neither of those candidates, even the mainstream Moseley-Braun, gathered strong African American support. (Interesting to note, neither did Moseley-Braun engender the fervent support from women that Clinton has enjoyed.) In fact, in Jan. 2004, Salon was reporting that blacks seemed tepid about all of the Democratic candidates, including the ones who shared their skin color.

The Salon article linked above also notes that in 2000 the black vote carried Al Gore to victory in the Democratic primary over Bill Bradley. I don’t recall much discussion of the meaning of blacks’ support of Al Gore. Perhaps black folks only need to justify their votes when they are cast for black candidates.

Dueling memes erase the existence of black women.

If women vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman and black people vote for Barack Obama because he is black—as the story of the 2008 Democratic primary goes—where does that leave black women? Damned either way? I have grown used to getting the “of course” look when I admit that I, a black person, am voting for Obama. I imagine the look would be much the same if I, a woman, were to support Hillary Clinton. It seems that only white males are allowed to make reasoned political decisions without being accused of playing identity politics.

It demeans Barack Obama as a candidate.

Lastly, the blacks-always-vote-for-blacks meme diminishes Barack Obama, who I believe is a strong and worthy candidate. The idea stands as a way to diminish the fact that, just like white political candidates, Obama had to win the support of black Americans. And he did so with remarkable aplomb.

But in the end, it doesn’t bother me so much that some people think black voters’ allegiance to Obama is race driven. It bothers me more that opinions based on scant facts, become accepted wisdom, touted all over Sunday morning TV and the Web. And after a while, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. Black folks vote for other black folks—it’s just the truth and “everybody” knows it. Conflicting opinions—even from black voters themselves—are unnecessary.

Look, I’m not saying that NO black people are making their political choices based on race. Some admittedly are. But some does not equal all, or even most. And the reality of this situation, like most things, is that it is far more complicated than the pat explanation we are asked to swallow.

This is all I ask of my fellow bloggers and the punditocracy (as if they would listen to me): If you are tempted to explain a group, particularly one to which you don’t belong, do a little research and share the facts, or just admit that you are talking out of your ass. And then be open to correction from people who actually live the life you are trying to explain. Just admit you don’t know me and we’ll be fine.


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