June 24th, 2008
08:00 AM ET

The politics of identity politics

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/06/23/art.obamawomen.jpg caption="Sen. Barack Obama at a roundtable discussion in Albuquerque, N.M."]

Jeff Chang
Author, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and co-founding editor of ColorLines magazine

Last weekend's Washington Post/ABC poll of white and Black voters racial attitudes revealed, well, not much at all.

The headline was "3 in 10 Americans Admit To Racial Bias". According to this poll, when asked the useless question of whether one experiences "feelings of personal racial prejudice", Blacks (34% of respondents) rate worse than whites (30%). (I say Black respondents are more truthful. Meanwhile, yellow and brown apparently are still not worth polling at all.)

But the piece really focused on some obscure "racial sensitivity index" whose methodology apparently couldn't be fully disclosed for fear someone might actually call b.s. on it. According to this fantastical statistical invention, whites who have a Black friend on speed-dial, just bought a brownstone in Harlem, and have downloaded a Weezy mixtape in the last 3 years are about 20% more likely to vote for Barack Obama thank their Lil Abner cousins.

(In the fog of a rowdy Saturday night wedding reception, I watched Sunday morning pundits making big hay of this "fact". Not to stereotype unfairly, but White Northeastern pundits shouldn't be so self-congratulatory. If I was a Southern white, well, I guess I wouldn't hate 'em any less than I do now. You see? I don't stereotype unfairly.)

So after creating a thoroughly bunk way of measuring how racist white American voters actually are–the numbers go: 21% "congratulations you're not racist", 50% "you're pretty much not racist or probably you are a little", and 29% "you're embarrassing to us so please stay home unless John King needs to interview you"–much of the poll's conclusions are completely useless.

Or just plain tiresome. Of the racially insensitive 29%, the Post intones, "Obama has some convincing to do..." Yes, colored folk–when your boss calls you a terrorist-fist-bumping radical Muslim baby daddy, you must excuse him and tell him nicely no, he's wrong, would he like to have a conversation about it. (Please excuse us if we spit instead.)

What was news to me was that the gaps in perceptions of race relations are as bad as they were on the eve of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

More than six in 10 African Americans now rate race relations as "not so good" or "poor," while 53 percent of whites hold more positive views. Opinions are also divided along racial lines, though less so, on whether blacks face discrimination.


After Katrina, No Child Left Behind, Incarceration Nation, and two oil wars, it's apparently more difficult than ever to find any consensus that race relations aren't so great and racial discrimination still exists.

That's not just depressing, it's "two Americas" depressing to both of my consciousnesses.

But wait it gets worse.

To wit:

Many think Obama has the potential to transform current racial politics. Nearly six in 10 believe his candidacy will shake up the racial status quo, for better or worse.


African Americans are much more optimistic than whites on this score: Sixty percent said Obama's candidacy will do more to help race relations, compared with 38 percent of whites.

Is it possible that Blacks–and the great, underpolled mass of Latinos and Asian Americans (who will likely vote Obama in much greater majorities than whites)–place too much faith that Obama can reverse the national course on institutional racism?

And why are whites–who say they are overwhelmingly ready to elect a "Black president" (one almost hears the caveat "if he's qualified" being attached like a reflex)–less likely to believe that race relations will get better if Obama wins? Do they know what's in the Kool-Aid? Or are they are sober about what may happen if Obama actually challenges white privilege?

It's impossible not to appreciate the kind of Jackie Robinson-like line Barack Obama must walk right now in this campaign. All of this comes in the face of the growing list of white pundits who would presume to lecture Obama on just how to win white voters, from the soccer moms to the lunchpail dads. Yes, forget all you've heard about angry feminists and people of color and feminists of color, because here are the real identity politics at work.

For as unilluminating as this poll is, it poses a key question for Obama's supporters and anyone concerned with racial justice, not just "feelings of racial prejudice": how do you find and engage those who don't want to know what change really looks like?

Editor's note: You can read more from Jeff Chang on his blog.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Annette (CA)

    Obama will get elected and the pundits and the world will congradulate America, as well as respect us. Change to me means stepping out in faith.
    Hilliary lost because she felt she was entitled to the nomination,she did not compete in the caucases and she thought the super delegates would give her the election.
    America has been stain with racism and this election will not change the fact. In the last 10 years my family has prospered but not as a whole. You see its more about self esteem, self love,intimidation, morals, ethics,and the culture of America that keep racism alive.All my life I remember seeing blacks being arrested,accused,incarcerated and I always thought this is how the world views us. This is the conditioning that has caused all races to display racism they have been systamatically conditioned .
    For those of you that can't hear Obama's clearly stated proposals for change I believe you are a victim of our America and are looking for reasons to disapprove and that 's not exactly your fault.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:03 pm |
  2. Mari, Salt Lake City

    Racism is alive and well. All you have to do is listen to Lou Dobbs, and how he dehumanizes illegal immigrants, by calling them "illegals"........ that's a dangerous thing.

    When people, like Imus, or Lou Dobbs, O'Reilly, Savage, Hannity, dehumanize people who are not like them that is PREJUDICE! Sadly, most of these people call themselves Christians!

    Guess they never heard of Jesus' great commandment "Love one another as I have loved you."

    June 24, 2008 at 9:02 pm |
  3. Franky

    You know, we have it pretty good. Is not that bad. I mean, if you have a generation that's been around for 150+ years........ohhh yeah, just sit back, relax and let the money roll.....

    June 24, 2008 at 8:15 pm |
  4. Tom Sealy

    AC your are the best keep doing what you are doing my freind.
    About Obama he will get elected if he can only explain how he will change things for the American public especially those that are on the lower end of the income stream. It's ok to say things but you should also show you would do it. He need to get off the big corporation profits etc. without the big companies who is going to employed the middle income emplyee, it's the small business and the corp. to move the economy forward they bothe need tax breaks in order to create more employment. That type of thinking is fo the old school and change.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:10 pm |
  5. Bev C NY

    Cindy's right. Obama has not said what kind of changes he will bring. Anyone can say he or she will change things. Obama has gotten a free ride from the press because he's (as he says" African-American. He is also half white. Hillary on the other hand was blasted from all side simply because she is a woman, a strong, brilliant woman at that, which is more scary to white males than Obama's blackness. I too am waiting to hear about the changes Obama will bring about.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:51 pm |
  6. Missy

    Have any of us thought some of the things that Imus has said out loud?

    June 24, 2008 at 11:32 am |
  7. Annie Kate

    I've seen lots of change in my lifetime – some of it good some of it not. I get frustrated with Obama because he talks about change but I've yet to hear exactly what he intends to change and how it will affect me and my family. I'm one of those people that reads the ingredient list on anything I buy to feed my family – if there is no ingredient list that has words I can understand, spell and pronounce I don't buy it. So I want to see what the ingredients are for Obama's "change" – until I see that its no sale.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 24, 2008 at 8:42 am |
  8. Cindy

    Oh I don't believe anything that these polls say!! There is racism in every nationality, black, white, Mexican, whatever! And there is no way that when asked that these people will freely admit that they are racist. I just don't believe it. Most racist aren't the die hard carry your racism on your sleeve and be loud and proud! Most try to act normal yet make their choices and decisions on the race factor. We are extremely far away from being racism free in this country.


    June 24, 2008 at 8:34 am |