The Tipping Point and Racial Ambivalence

The presidential campaign of Barack Obama, at its heart, has always been a calculated bet, a $500 million dollar gamble that enough racially ambivalent white Americans could see beyond tradition and precedent and measure Obama's candidacy in terms of the value it brings to the table instead of the history it makes.

Could they be wrong?

It didn't strike me how much of my life was spent around white people until I listened earlier this year as a black coworker chastised a white coworker for offering him some sliced watermelon she was sharing with the rest of the office.

"What do you look like, offering a black man watermelon? Don't you know that it's RACIST to assume I like watermelon?" He looked at me with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

The woman, a pretty feisty New Yorker, looked bewildered while she backed away from him, her normal aggressiveness reduced to a few half hearted "ums" and "ahs" as the corners of her eyes crinkled in.

When she was gone, I looked at him. "You know, in the few seconds since you said "racist", I tried to remember the last time I've used that word. And you know, I couldn't remember when it might have been."

If you have a lot of white friends and acquaintances, especially those from Middle America, you are very, very rarely going to use the "R" word. Among the racially ambivalent, it throws up an instant barrier. So long as we dress alike, drive the same cars, have similar educational backgrounds and share similar dreams, racially ambivalent white people are okay with you. You will get a pass on your politics, even if they are Republicans, so long as you are a moderate. In fact, you are accepted into the fold as a neighbor, as a golf buddy, as a fellow cigar smoker or poker player precisely because of the moderation in which you seem to take all things in life.

But behind the casual intimacy of these types of relationships lies a surprisingly complicated combination of assumptions, misinformation, emotional needs, experiences and personality traits that all bear on an ambivalent white person’s thinking about race.

Psychologists Irwin Katz and Glenn Haas demonstrated in their research that anti-black attitudes correlated with white perceptions that blacks violate values related to the Protestant work ethic and that pro-black attitudes correlated with humanitarian and egalitarian values. They concluded that racially ambivalent whites can simultaneously possess both sets of attitudes. Their investigations showed that in this group, reactions toward a single black individual could be affected by a small push in either a positive or negative direction (e.g., slightly superior or slightly inferior credentials for a job applicant).

From my own experience in living rooms of friends here in Atlanta's northern suburbs, I have listened with my own ears as people we've known for years have begun to talk out loud about why they are either for Obama or considering Obama as their presidential choice. For the few Democratic diehards around here, there has been little visible resistance to the idea of Barack Obama as president. In some of the more moderate Republican households, which is the group who people the suburbs around me, there seem to those who are at least open to giving the idea serious consideration.

The neighborhood I lived in for ten years is only about ten minutes away from where I live now. The last time we were over there, during Labor Day weekend, we ended up in the great room of our old neighbors from across the cul-de-sac, talking about politics, something that had never happened in all the years we’d known them. It was interesting to hear the husband, who is some kind of research engineer, describe out loud to us why he was dissatisfied with what the Republicans had to offer, and how he was seriously considering voting for a Democrat for the first time in his life. He sounded more disturbed by the fact that the Republican candidates didn’t seem to measure up than he was about voting for a black man.

Is he going to campaign for Obama? Probably not. Is he going to wear an Obama t-shirt or button? I seriously doubt it. But in those conversations about politics, when no one black is around, I would like to believe that he would build a case for his candidate the same way he did on Labor Day weekend. Why is this important? Because Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, in pointing out some of the characteristics of the way we exchange information, laid out a fairly plausible theory that attempted to explain "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable." This middle of the middle class, who tend to be the least dogmatic of any group, have powered a large number of the trends Gladwell explores in his book.

The biggest thing those who are racially ambiguous seem to have in common is that they have never found the need to hate black people or never were indoctrinated into a culture that promoted this kind of hatred. Extrapolating broad generalizations from specific incidents is a waste of time for people like this. If they pass one of the many black homeless people who stand at the end of in-town off ramps or in the parking lots of downtown gas stations, I am not automatically linked to that image.

But a realignment of the “natural order” of things in America can still be unsettling to people who, by and large in their day to day lives, don't have any real need to think about race. Which is why you will often hear the statement "I wasn't there when all that happened" when a conversation on race gets beyond the surface topics we've made it palatable to talk about, the ones that don't really ask any introspection from either blacks or whites, just an empathetic recitation of the Top Ten "Important Things Black People Have Done" list, or the obligatory adulation of the Top Three "Dead Black Civil Rights Leaders".

And if a discussion develops, like the one about Barack Obama in my old neighbor’s den, it will only go so far, because it can be hamstrung by the boundaries of the compartment their racial thoughts reside in. In that particular discussion about the election with our old neighbors, we went around the room a few times, each of us adding our own thoughts about Obama or McCain in a casual yet slightly measured way, as if we were around an imaginary conference table, weighing in on a corporate project. We hadn’t made it to the ten minute mark when the women started talking about the obstacle Obama’s race posed to certain voters. After a couple of minutes, the husband got a look on his face, a slight scowl about the temple that signaled he was getting tired of this. The next thing you know, we were talking about the trip to the beach we are going to take together next month.

Black People/Black Issue Fatigue Syndrome, which can either mean "we've spent enough time on this and need to get back to a neutral topic" or "I am uncomfortable with the direction this is headed", is one of those things when acted upon that gives the person expressing themselves this way a sense of getting back to some sort of middle of the road equilibrium. In times like these, in a town like Atlanta, black people, including myself, can get pretty aggressive when the topic of race is on the table. Should I have pressed my old neighbor that day to keep on talking until he could understand my outsized commitment to the Obama campaign effort? Was I a "sellout" for allowing him to change the topic so quickly?

In the coming weeks, this is where Obama will draw his greatest number of “undecided” or “on the fence” voters like my old neighbor. If Obama’s campaign strategists are right, the things that make Barack Obama an appealing candidate, those traits that have been on stage front and center during the Wall Street crisis and the recent debate, will do more than anything I could say towards helping those voters “get over the hump”. So if my old neighbor, or your neighbors or your co-workers who are white are willing to talk to you for five minutes about the issues they’ve been wrestling with or the idea of possibly supporting an Obama candidacy, collect those five minutes just like they were campaign donations. Say "thank you" mentally when they look at their watch. Better yet, think of these people’s time and their growing interest as casino winnings.

Because these are the things that happen when a $500 million bet begins to pay off.

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Big Man said...

Really enjoyed the post man. Very well written and good points throughout. I'll be back frequently.

Anonymous said...

Like I always say it's a test of the type of people who are really in America. We have a election between Racism and Stupidity. So what will the masses choose? Does anyone really want to admit that there are that many bigots in the USA. I guess well find out in a month won't we?

Brown Man said...

I was just feeling a little too much polarization starting to heat up, both in my own mind and in this end of the blogosphere, to not say anything.

And I had waaay too many posts about McCain and Palin lately, so I needed to get back to the basics of why I even started this blog in the first place.

spira62 said...

I enjoyed your post very much. As a 46 y/o white woman also in the south, and an Obama supporter, race never was an issue for me in this race. I do have a black friend who is not sure about Obama. I think she does not want to be seen as supporting him just because he is black.

Joey said...

The hottest scandal right now involves a presidential candidate you've never heard of. grave robbery and cover-ups. Nice.

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