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Obama and the End of Privilege

Two headlines on the same front page of The New York Times caught my attention last week.  The first announced that “whites account for under half of births in the U.S.”  In the twelve month period ending last July, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and persons of mixed race accounted for 50.4% of all births in the United States, a first in U.S. history.  While the white population remains strongly in the majority, representing 63.4 % of the population, it is aging.  The median age of whites is now forty-two, with white women moving out of child-bearing years.  William Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution called this “an important tipping point, a transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming.

Some will read this headline as good news, others as disturbing news, others as just news.  But however we read it, the social implications are enormous.  “How do we reimagine the social contract when the generations don’t look like one another?” asks Marcelo Suarez-Orozco of New York University.  The United States has done a poor job of educating African Americans and Hispanics.  Will older Americans have the will to reverse this reality for the population that will eventually become the majority and will they be willing to pay to educate a younger generation that looks less and less like themselves?  On the other hand, will a younger, non-white majority community be willing to care for their aging, white, baby-boomer neighbors?  White privilege is well entrenched in this country and will be for some time to come.  But as these demographic changes accelerate whites will have to navigate a dramatically altered landscape and rethink their own place and role in the world.  For some that will likely be difficult.

This brings us to the second headline that day:  “G.O.P. ‘Super PAC’ Weighs Hard-Line Attack on Obama.”  The article was about a group of Republican strategists who were pitching a provocative campaign attack against President Obama to right wing billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade and patriarch of the family that now owns the hapless Chicago Cubs.  The proposal was titled, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama:  The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good,” and was to have prominently featured video clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  “Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do:  Show the world how Barack Obama’s opinions of America and the world were formed and why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president’s formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees.”  The plan also included the proposal to hire as a spokesperson an “extremely literate conservative African American” who can give cover against the charge of race baiting.

In the controversy following the leak of the plan Ricketts claims he rejected the $10 million proposal.  The furor even found its way to The Chicago Tribune sports pages where Cubs ownership ran for cover, their hopes for public funding of renovations to Wrigley Field in shambles before the public outcry and the mayor’s ire.  Whether Ricketts would have funded the plan had it remained secret is irrelevant.  The fact that senior campaign strategists felt they could successfully pitch such a racially charged and racially manipulative scheme to one of America’s wealthiest men is cause enough for alarm.

The only way, it seems to me, to understand the visceral hostility directed at Barack Obama is to read it in the context of the news about the historic demographic shifts taking place.  His black skin, his Kenyan father, his Indonesian boyhood, his vaguely “alien” name, his Islamic sounding middle name (highlighted in the proposed advertising campaign), the relentless questioning of his citizenship and his Christian faith, all have little to do with his politics and his policies which, frankly, have disappointed his progressive and left-wing supporters.  If he and Mitt Romney weren’t obliged to adopt distinguishing campaign rhetoric, we’d find them closer to each other than to their followers on either extreme end of the political spectrum.  No, the hostility to Obama from the right is fundamentally race-based, the response of entrenched white privilege to a symbol of its eventual demise.

This isn’t to suggest that those who vote against Obama this fall are all racists.  There are policy distinctions represented in the candidates and their parties that do matter.  What I think is true, however, is that the extreme hostility to Obama the person as opposed to Obama’s policies is racially grounded, and that it is explained in large measure by the fear of a significant portion of white America that its place of privilege is not only morally suspect, but demographically endangered.  And it’s not just white privilege, it’s also religious privilege that’s under demographic assault.  The fact that so many are willing to believe Obama is a Muslim (one in six Americans in a recent poll, and a quarter of all white evangelicals) cannot be attributed to bad information, but to deliberate misinformation and fear mongering over the end of Christian cultural dominance.

None of this bodes well for “the reimagining of the social contract” that will be required to successfully navigate the demographic and cultural shifts that are already reshaping many parts of the country.  If we are to avoid the destructive escalation of racially charged identity politics or, even worse, the morally bankrupt clinging to a form of minority rule, we will have to interrogate the corrosive ideology of white privilege as never before, beginning with political, economic, and cultural leaders from the left and the right.  That will not be easy.  But it will be crucial lest we ultimate forfeit the democratic ideals that, even though partially realized, have always invited divine blessing rather than curse.

John H. Thomas

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