Whiteness in the Age of Obama
By Jedediah Purdy
As I've noted before (and so have lots of others), this was the barely-concealed meaning of Tea Party claims that Obama was not American, not constitutionally the president, somehow deeply alien. These ideas are so unmoored from reality that they have to be approached as symptoms, not positions. Race was also much of the meaning of tying Obama to food stamps, and of (barely less public) assertions that health care reform was a giveaway from white taxpayers to black dependents.
Those notorious maps showing the overlap between Romney states and the old Confederacy take on a grim extra plausibility when you consider that Obama seems to have taken less than 20 percent of the white vote in the core states of the Deep South--Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. I'm reminded of the friend in West Virginia who told me, back in 1988, that one reason to support Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primary was that he could pick out his solitary vote when the local newspaper printed the results.
But consider: whiteness, like any other racial category, is a made-up thing. It is a matter of what people do, not what they are. (Social construction is the clunky academic name for this.) Like other made-up things, it changes. Obama's share of the youth vote in swing states like Virginia, Florida, and Ohio was so high that clearly, somewhere around age 30, a majority of white people started supporting the president. Romney's success with old people isn't just a matter of the fact that America used to be much more white. It's that white people used to be much more white--in the Mitt Romney sense of white. Whiteness, too, is changing. What might it become?
There's plenty of reason to hope it might just go away. From the beginning, whiteness has been a power play, a way of defining oneself as obviously, implicitly superior: entitled to deference, closer to the heart of the nation, a real American. Much more than the national identities it consolidated--English, Irish, German--it was always defined by a palpable contrast, especially with African-American slaves and victims of segregation. As the boundaries of whiteness shifted to absorb Irish, Italians and those formerly black families that made the tragic crossing from "passing" to "being" white, it always took its meaning from what it was not, always depended on someone else's being underneath or outside.