Impact of decades of racist backlash

June 5, 2008

STEVE LEIGH is undoubtedly right to point out that racism comes from the top of society, and that the "Archie Bunker" stereotype of white workers is a myth ("Racism flows from the top"). But that still leaves open the question of how much impact this racism has on people's consciousness today.

Take the recent Democratic primary elections in the South. Leigh argues that it is mistaken to assume that some white votes for Hillary Clinton in these parts of the country are motivated at least in part by racism.

It's certainly completely wrong to assume this is true of all white voters. But in Kentucky, for example, more than 25 percent of Clinton voters said race was a factor in their vote. And this only includes people who were willing to openly admit that race was a factor.

Consciousness has undoubtedly changed a great deal in the U.S. thanks to the mass struggles of the civil rights movement. But a generation after these struggles subsided, racism still has a strong effect in the United States, and remains an important challenge that the U.S. working class is still fighting to overcome.

More broad poll numbers bear this out. For example, the 2004 American National Election Study asked people whether "history makes it more difficult for Blacks to succeed." About half of all whites disagreed with this, along with 58 percent of whites with a high-school education.

Another poll question asked whether "Blacks should try harder to succeed." Here 60 percent of whites agreed, along with 71 percent of whites with a high-school education.

In election polls, the Republican candidate John McCain has a six-point advantage among high-school educated voters over Barack Obama. Assuming that Blacks in this group are overwhelmingly for Obama, then his disadvantage is even greater among high school-educated whites. This, I would argue, is not because McCain has positions on class issues or the war that resonate with this group. It's in part because of the influence of racism. (Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, unlike Obama, has a five-point advantage over McCain among high-school educated voters.)

Given that we have seen a generation of racist backlash, declining living standards and a relative lack of multiracial working-class struggle, it is not surprising that racism has had an impact on the consciousness of many whites, including many working-class whites.

Nonetheless, there is clearly a broad shift leftward taking place in popular consciousness right now. But this shift can be undermined by racism, which is still a force that divides the working class, and that has to be recognized and fought.
Stuart Easterling, Chicago

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