The color of thought

by Michael O. Allen on April 28, 2008


I’ve just about had it with my friend Jim Sleeper.

This is what he does to infuriate me:

He writes these deep, complicated pieces, which are really essays, not blog posts, that are layered with links to other thoughtful pieces that very nearly grind you to the ground as you contemplate what they mean, that by the time you catch your breadth to even think of what to say about them, the moment to comment has almost passed. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press) Barack Obama’s campaign wants to stem concerns about his viability in a general election race.

And, as you’re doing this, knocking on your consciousness, demanding to be considered, would be another Sleeper piece, equally as thoughtful, complex and reasoned as the one you’re wrestling with.

All I can say is, thank God for this interminable presidential primary election season.

Ok, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, what of the substance of Jim’s piece?

I (partly) disagree with Jim (but is this his argument, or is he limning another’s) and agree with one of the responses to his TPM Cafe piece offering Sen. Barack Obama a “Way Out of the Race Trap” in this campaign.

Sleeper referred to Ed Kilgore’s piece at TPM Cafe highlighting a debate at The New Republic over whether Obama is fated to be another McGovern. Kilgore gently demolished that trope. Sleeper wondered why none of these guys mentioned Obama’s race when the importance of race had just shown itself in the recent Pennsylvania primary.

Sleeper then brought up the Richard Kahlenberg’s Chronicle of Higher Education article that pointed out that Sen. Obama holds views, especially on affirmative action, that the so-called “working-class white voters” would find very much appealing. Obama favors income-based preferences, not race-based ones.

Kahlenberg reprises some racial history to argue that Barack Obama’s candidacy could show “how to remedy the history of discrimination.. without creating new inequities and divisions. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a strong supporter of race-and gender-based affirmative acion preferences and has shown little openness to new ideas on that front.

“By contrast, Obama… emphasizes [as did Martin Luther King, Jr.] common ground among races…. Nothing would galvanize white working-class voters more than a rejection of… racial preferences in favor of King’s Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

“Obama appears open to that approach. In his Philadelphia speech,…. he observed: ‘Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race…’ Their resentment builds ‘when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.’ He warned against seeing those resentments as ‘misguided or even racist’ without understanding that they are ‘grounded in legitimate concerns.’

“Moreover, in response to a reporter’s question last May, Obama said that his own relatively privileged girls don’t deserve affirmative-action preferences, but poor minority and white students do. Emphasizing class would remove such preferences for upper-income members of minority groups — treatment that Obama concedes makes little sense — and would, for the first time in 40 years, benefit the vast majority of working-class black people who have been helped little by affirmative action programs….

“It also would be politically popular: While racial preferences are strongly opposed by Americans, income-based preferences are supported by a two-to-one margin.The move would be transformative,” Kahlenberg concludes, “recapturing not only the colorblind character of King’s vision but also its aggressive assault on class inequality.”

Jim then asked how come these voters do not know Obama’s view on the issue, going on to explain why. He wants Obama to come out and speak out on this issue as only he can, and “flush out” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is four square for racial preferences, on the issue.

No one could do it more truthfully or eloquently than he. Whites would hear him, for sure. Blacks wouldn’t desert him, because they’d catch every nuance in his presentation.

He might lose a few upscale white liberals who like to indulge racial symbolism in order to feel good about their privileged selves far more than they’d like to make the sacrifices and do the heavily lifting that equality of opportunity really requires. But it’s unlikely they’d desert him for Clinton now, and he’d gain tremendous credibility among working-class whites for being substantively trans-racial, in ways that actually benefit them, rather than symbolically trans-racial in color-coded gestures that make the pursuit of equality seem a zero-sum game.

Commenter Chris G begged to differ:

I agree with the premise that Obama needs to add something to his message that working class voters can relate to, but why not simply put up the positive policy of income-based preferences? no need to contrast it with affirmative action, it might not be wise to rely on black voters picking up “nuances”

working-class black and white Americans alike share the experience of economic oppression, and Obama has a deep background working on that issue, e.g. jobs training.

he needs to put that experience front and center with his message of change. he talks about it, but not enough IMHO. everyone knows Edwards is the son of a mill worker. I don’t think everyone knows Obama’s connection with the pain working class communities have felt in the past few decades.

Jim does not disagree with Chris and even went on to amplify his thoughts on Chris’s take.

All this is exhausting. I have to go check out TPM Cafe. There’s probably another Jim Sleeper piece to bend puny little brain around.

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