Race and the vote for Obama
Comment from Australia
The crowds worshipping at Barack Obama's feet on Tuesday weren't crying tears of joy because the nation had just voted for his tax policy. The adoration of this US president-elect following his great victory isn't from voters ecstatic that the country's health system may now be reformed. And ABC Radio yesterday didn't joyously play the American national anthem because its commentators were all weepy to think the US economy would now be re-regulated.
To make what seems an obvious point, these tears, these hugs, this reverential celebration of Obama's win from Washington to Wagga Wagga have been unleashed by Americans voting for their first black president. Obama's triumph - inspiring even to his opponents - has been instantly hailed as a great healing. The racial divide that so shamefully scarred the country has at last been overcome.
But check the exit polls. That this election showed a nation overcoming its racism is a myth. But what a fine myth it is, which is why it's been adopted not just by the media, but by both sides of US politics. Obama preached it from the first line of his victory speech: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." John McCain was even more explicit in conceding defeat: "That (Obama) managed to (win) by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire . . . "Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth."
The Age summed up the mood more crudely in this headline: "Racial barriers fall as America looks to its great black hope." But did those barriers really fall? Was this result really a vote for America's black hope, offering healing? Or did voters simply back Obama, if reluctantly, for the usual pragmatic reasons that make voters choose one side over the stale other? I know. It seems even sacrilege to raise these questions, so powerful is the myth already of Obama the Healer. But check the exit polls of Tuesday's vote. They suggest - superficially, at least - that Obama didn't quite overcome racial divides, and may even have entrenched them.
Some 95 per cent of black voters backed the black guy against McCain, the white Republican. In the Democratic primaries it had been much the same, with as many as 90 per cent backing Obama against Hillary Clinton, the white Democrat. (If you're looking for a racist vote, start here.) Two-thirds of Latino and Asian voters chose Obama, too, but most whites stuck with McCain, 56 per cent giving the white guy their vote.
In fact, you could even blame that reluctance of whites to back Obama for making his win rather modest. Consider: Obama had twice the cash of McCain, most of the celebrity endorsements, and coverage from the media that was rarely short of fawning. He was also running against a very old and crippled man who came from the same party as George Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in history, and had chosen as a running mate a woman the media damned as a moron and burned as a witch. Everything went Obama's way. Voters were already angry about the economy, the war in Iraq and the price of petrol, and tended to blame the lot on Bush. Then to stink up the Republican brand completely, just weeks from voting day, Wall St fell in a hole so deep that we're still waiting for the splash.
Given all that, and his near unanimous support from black voters, it's amazing Obama won by just 52.3 per cent to McCain's 46.4. What stopped him from winning huge? His race?
But even this picture, of the races lining up behind the men who most looked like them, is exaggerated and masks the real problem, which isn't really racism but culture. There isn't much evidence, in fact, that Obama shifted many votes because of his race, one way or the other. (His wins in the Democratic primaries are excepted.) Yes, 95 per cent of blacks voted for him, but that's only a bit up on the usual black vote for a Democrat candidate, (even if the turnout this year may have been greater). John Kerry got 88 per cent in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000 got 90 per cent.
Latinos likewise usually vote two to one for Democrats, and only gave Bush a higher vote in 2004 because he spoke Spanish and had worked hard for many years to win their trust. But with Republicans since cracking down on Latino illegal immigrants, Latino voters were always likely to get behind the Democrats again.
As for the whites, no Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has ever won a majority of their votes. Obama this time did win over as many white voters as any of the past three Democrats, including Bill Clinton, and did better with poor whites, hurt by tough times, than did Kerry four years ago.
And now the pattern of this election - and the myth of Obama the Healer - becomes clearer. All racial groups swung towards Obama (the whites less so), but not so wildly as you'd expect with all that was going for him, despite his inexperience and past associations with extremists. What's more, the issue most in their minds was not race. Two-thirds of voters told exit polls the economy was their biggest issue - the strongest such result in two decades - and seven in 10 said the country was going in the wrong direction. Change is what Obama promised, and change is what they wanted. But a change in race politics? Obama never campaigned on that.
True, looking black, he didn't need to say more, and for some the mere fact of a black man running for candidate must have been exciting. Obama indeed got a swing from young white voters, so often fresh-faced idealists. But the change he symbolises in race politics may not be the change traditional black activists and race industry workers seek at all.
Obama's life story is of a man actually beyond race - more beyond it, indeed, than are many who now cheer his win so frantically. He may be black, but he was just two when his Kenyan father shot through, and was brought up by his white mother and white grandparents, mostly in Indonesia and Hawaii, far from African-American suburbs. He later tried to find a black identity, going for two decades to a militantly black Chicago church, but he would know well what a fraud it is to divide each other by race, and to negotiate as if we belonged to separate tribes.
That's what makes him such a relief to many whites, who'd rather feel good than guilty, and are so grateful to a black man who doesn't scold them. But that's also what makes him a challenge to many African-Americans, many of whom have grown up in a culture of victimhood and entitlement, and too often see government as the solution to problems no government on its own could ever fix.
Three statistics alone will show that what really divides the US is not racism but culture: 50 per cent of black children drop out; almost 70 per cent don't have dad at home; and blacks commit half America's murders. The trouble is it's easier to demand help than to find your own feet, and it's not for nothing that blacks so overwhelmingly vote Democrat, which has long played to identity politics, handout dependency and the dead-end culture of grievance.
But what has given Obama his astonishing success is none of that old-style race politics. He's not into grievance but sweat. He has succeeded by studying hard, working hard, thinking hard - values he took from his Midwestern mother. And in his victory speech he quoted most a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, also from Illinois, and praised his "values of self-reliance, individual liberty". He called not for great new government programs, but "a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder".
He's right, of course. The racial divide in America was not healed by a simple vote last Tuesday, even had that been what the voters intended. That divide will stay until there is above all a cultural change within African-American society - a change that will have kids growing up with dutiful fathers at home. That will have them finishing school and getting the learning, confidence and sense of responsibility that will help them to make a career. A life.
What must change is culture, and there Obama's work has yet to begin. All he has done is offer the shining example that anything is possible in America. A black man may be president, because the system does work, and if a man fails we might look closer to home for the reasons. But praise the myth. Admire Obama. We need heroes, so hold him up as the inspiration to at last look beyond race to character. Yet, do not forget the system worked already, and Obama merely proved it. It is America, as much as Obama, that deserves this great praise.
Obama's Post-Racial Promise
By Shelby Steele
For the first time in human history, a largely white nation has elected a black man to be its paramount leader. And the cultural meaning of this unprecedented convergence of dark skin and ultimate power will likely become -- at least for a time -- a national obsession. In fact, the Obama presidency will always be read as an allegory. Already we are as curious about the cultural significance of his victory as we are about its political significance.
Does his victory mean that America is now officially beyond racism? Does it finally complete the work of the civil rights movement so that racism is at last dismissible as an explanation of black difficulty? Can the good Revs. Jackson and Sharpton now safely retire to the seashore? Will the Obama victory dispel the twin stigmas that have tormented black and white Americans for so long -- that blacks are inherently inferior and whites inherently racist? Doesn't a black in the Oval Office put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn't it imply a "post-racial" America? And shouldn't those of us -- white and black -- who did not vote for Mr. Obama take pride in what his victory says about our culture even as we mourn our political loss?
Answering no to such questions is like saying no to any idealism; it seems callow. How could a decent person not hope for all these possibilities, or not give America credit for electing its first black president? And yet an element of Barack Obama's success was always his use of the idealism implied in these questions as political muscle. His talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America -- and then to have that vision define political decency. Thus, a failure to support Obama politically implied a failure of decency.
Obama's special charisma -- since his famous 2004 convention speech -- always came much more from the racial idealism he embodied than from his political ideas. In fact, this was his only true political originality. On the level of public policy, he was quite unremarkable. His economics were the redistributive axioms of old-fashioned Keynesianism; his social thought was recycled Great Society. But all this policy boilerplate was freshened up -- given an air of "change" -- by the dreamy post-racial and post-ideological kitsch he dressed it in.
This worked politically for Obama because it tapped into a deep longing in American life -- the longing on the part of whites to escape the stigma of racism. In running for the presidency -- and presenting himself to a majority white nation -- Obama knew intuitively that he was dealing with a stigmatized people. He knew whites were stigmatized as being prejudiced, and that they hated this situation and literally longed for ways to disprove the stigma.
Obama is what I have called a "bargainer" -- a black who says to whites, "I will never presume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me." Whites become enthralled with bargainers out of gratitude for the presumption of innocence they offer. Bargainers relieve their anxiety about being white and, for this gift of trust, bargainers are often rewarded with a kind of halo.
Obama's post-racial idealism told whites the one thing they most wanted to hear: America had essentially contained the evil of racism to the point at which it was no longer a serious barrier to black advancement. Thus, whites became enchanted enough with Obama to become his political base. It was Iowa -- 95% white -- that made him a contender. Blacks came his way only after he won enough white voters to be a plausible candidate.
Of course, it is true that white America has made great progress in curbing racism over the last 40 years. I believe, for example, that Colin Powell might well have been elected president in 1996 had he run against a then rather weak Bill Clinton. It is exactly because America has made such dramatic racial progress that whites today chafe so under the racist stigma. So I don't think whites really want change from Obama as much as they want documentation of change that has already occurred. They want him in the White House first of all as evidence, certification and recognition.
But there is an inherent contradiction in all this. When whites -- especially today's younger generation -- proudly support Obama for his post-racialism, they unwittingly embrace race as their primary motivation. They think and act racially, not post-racially. The point is that a post-racial society is a bargainer's ploy: It seduces whites with a vision of their racial innocence precisely to coerce them into acting out of a racial motivation. A real post-racialist could not be bargained with and would not care about displaying or documenting his racial innocence. Such a person would evaluate Obama politically rather than culturally.
Certainly things other than bargaining account for Obama's victory. He was a talented campaigner. He was reassuringly articulate on many issues -- a quality that Americans now long for in a president. And, in these last weeks, he was clearly pushed over the top by the economic terrors that beset the nation. But it was the peculiar cultural manipulation of racial bargaining that brought him to the political dance. It inflated him as a candidate, and it may well inflate him as a president.
There is nothing to suggest that Obama will lead America into true post-racialism. His campaign style revealed a tweaker of the status quo, not a revolutionary. Culturally and racially, he is likely to leave America pretty much where he found her.
But what about black Americans? Won't an Obama presidency at last lead us across a centuries-old gulf of alienation into the recognition that America really is our country? Might this milestone not infuse black America with a new American nationalism? And wouldn't this be revolutionary in itself? Like most Americans, I would love to see an Obama presidency nudge things in this direction. But the larger reality is the profound disparity between black and white Americans that will persist even under the glow of an Obama presidency. The black illegitimacy rate remains at 70%. Blacks did worse on the SAT in 2000 than in 1990. Fifty-five percent of all federal prisoners are black, though we are only 13% of the population. The academic achievement gap between blacks and whites persists even for the black middle class. All this disparity will continue to accuse blacks of inferiority and whites of racism -- thus refueling our racial politics -- despite the level of melanin in the president's skin.
The torture of racial conflict in America periodically spits up a new faith that idealism can help us "overcome" -- America's favorite racial word. If we can just have the right inspiration, a heroic role model, a symbolism of hope, a new sense of possibility. It is an American cultural habit to endure our racial tensions by periodically alighting on little islands of fresh hope and idealism. But true reform, like the civil rights victories of the '60s, never happens until people become exhausted with their suffering. Then they don't care who the president is.
Presidents follow the culture; they don't lead it. I hope for a competent president.
Nasty British bureaucrats again
Street market inspectors were ordered to target a convicted "metric martyr" and his sister while ignoring other traders working in pounds and ounces because council officers wanted to "teach them a lesson"
Three former Hackney Council inspectors have told how they were instructed to single out Colin Hunt, 60 - one of the original metric martyrs - and his sister, Janet Devers, 64, for "enforcement action" because the pair had campaigned against the ban on imperial measurements. One ex-inspector, who worked for Hackney for four years, said: "The manager told us that we had to teach Janet and Colin a lesson and focus our enforcement efforts on them rather than any other traders who used imperial measures or sold goods by the bowl. We knew it wasn't fair, but if we objected the managers just said we should do as we were told. They made it clear that we had to pick on Janet and Colin even though they are good traders with a long history in the market."
Mr Hunt was convicted of using imperial measures in 2001 and fought an unsuccessful High Court battle on the issue in 2002. Mrs Devers was last month convicted on eight similar charges by Thames magistrates last month - a case that prompted the Government to announce new guidelines that would effectively ban such prosecutions for "essentially minor offences". However, the use of imperial weights remains technically illegal.
The Sunday Telegraph is now campaigning for a change in the law, to ensure that retailers are allowed to sell food in pounds and ounces. The campaign has been backed by a wide range of public figures, including former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the actor Edward Fox.
Mrs Devers, who faces three further charges at Snaresbrook Crown Court in January, lodged an appeal against her convictions last week.
Another former inspector, Mohammed Serdouk, who monitored the Ridley Road market, in east London, said his bosses had ordered him to impose regulations and bylaws on Mr Hunt "many times, to the point that it made me feel he was particularly singled out to the point of harassment and making an example of him." Mr Serdouk has now written a letter to the family, offering support, in which he wrote: "The application of these measures and the way they were carried out was unwarranted, needlessly unproductive and detrimental to the spirit of collaboration. "I am certain that if those measures were applied across the market, without victims, Mr Hunt would be a supporter and advocate in bettering the situation in Ridley Road market." The letter may be used as a witness statement in any future court hearings.
Another former inspector, who left the council earlier this year, told this newspaper: "Colin Hunt and Janet Devers were definitely the focus of the council's enforcement action in Ridley Road market. It was made clear to me that they were on the radar and we should keep a close eye on them." In his letter of support for Mr Hunt, he added: "My immediate managers singled out Mr Hunt and directed market inspectors to pay particular attention to him by way of taking enforcement action against him. "I feel Mr Hunt has certainly not received fair treatment and this is certainly not in the true spirit of the council's policy in working with traders and the traders association."
Mrs Devers, whose family have run market stalls in east London for more than 70 years, said: "We always suspected that we were being targeted by the council and these revelations show that we were right. The inspectors were told to make our lives difficult. "It's absolutely disgraceful. Thousands of market traders all over the country are doing the same thing as us and yet we were the ones who were prosecuted. "There are far more serious problems at Ridley Road market and elsewhere in Hackney but the council decides to waste taxpayers' money prosecuting people for weighing vegetables in pounds and ounces and selling goods by the bowl - something the Government now says councils shouldn't do."
Mr Hunt said: "I have been the target of these enforcement visits for seven years and in the past 18 months they have gone for my sister Janet as well. No other traders have been targeted in this way."
Neil Herron, director of the Metric Martyrs campaign which is also fighting for a change in the law to make it legal to sell good in pounds and ounces, said: "We thought it was more than coincidence that two of the five metric martyrs who have been prosecuted were from the same market and just happened to be brother and sister. "Now we know it is more than coincidence - and the evidence has come from the very inspectors who were ordered to be on the front line of the campaign against Janet and Colin." Mr Herron called for "a full internal inquiry into exactly what went on at Hackney council trading standards".
A spokesman for Hackney council said: "Trading Standards have taken formal action against 10 traders on Ridley Road Market for similar offences of deliberately omitting prices and quantities on produce. "The punishments have ranged from simple cautions to prosecutions where fines and costs have been awarded." The spokesman declined to comment on Mrs Devers' appeal.
A perfect day to blow up the nanny state
The cost of protecting children from death is too high when it means that millions lose the chance of enjoying themselves
No one knows who the stupidest parent in Australia is. But, whoever he is, the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau (AASB) has saved his child from a fatal car accident. It did this last year by banning a television advertisement that shows a toddler in nappies driving a four-wheel-drive Hyundai. The AASB deemed the image too dangerous to broadcast. Upon seeing it, Australia's dumbest parent may be inclined to toss his two-year-old the car keys and ask her to pop down the shops for some ciggies.
The commercial was made in New Zealand, where it had already run for many months. Surveys revealed it to be the most popular in the country and, as yet, no toddler has been found out and about in charge of the family car. The AASB, however, was unimpressed by this evidence. After all, the stupidest Australian is surely stupider than the stupidest New Zealander, if only because there are five times as many Australians to choose from. In a population of 20million, there just might be a child saved by this ruling.
Nevertheless, the ruling was wrong. The AASB should have let the child die. It is worth it for the fun of watching an amusing advert. Some will find the idea of sacrificing a child for the sake of a little entertainment objectionable. But it is not a little entertainment. When millions of people are entertained a little, that is a lot of entertainment - easily worth the life of a child.
"No amount of entertainment is worth the life of a child!" This is perfect political rhetoric, guaranteed to get the Question Time studio audience clapping their support. But it also explains why that same audience is beset by so much "nanny state gone mad" regulation. What's more, it is wrong. Anyone who thinks that no amount entertainment is worth the life of a child either overvalues children or undervalues entertainment.
Start with children. How much is it worth spending to save one? The precise amount is not as important as taking the question seriously. Children are not priceless. In a world of limited resources, nothing is. Any money spent on saving a child is money not spent on something else, including saving other children. Above a certain price, saving a child does more harm than good; the money would be better spent on something else.
The Government agrees, not just about children but about people generally. For example, when deciding whether or not to spend money on improving the safety of Britain's roads, it uses a "value of a statistical life" of about o1.5million. If a road improvement that would save only one person costs more than this, the Department for Transport prefers to let him die. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) uses similar reasoning to decide which medical treatments should be offered through the NHS. If a treatment costs more than it is worth in "quality adjusted life years", we do not get it. If the price is right, nanny is rightly willing to sacrifice her children. She is overprotective not because she cares too much for our lives, but because she cares too little for our fun.
Take fireworks. In 1997 our representatives banned the mini sky rockets and erratic flight fireworks that I used to spend my pocket money on. And in 2004 they made it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 either to buy fireworks or to possess them in a public place. What is the cost of this regulation in lost fun? If my well spent youth is any indication, the cost is enormous. I adored early November: buying the fireworks, hoarding them in my bedroom armoury and then letting them off on Guy Fawkes Night, often in public places. More fun than Christmas, and far better than the pansyish nonsense that passes for entertainment these days, such as watching "reality" on TV.
I would gladly pay $200 more for this forbidden fun than for the watered-down version that the Government now allows children. If only a million British children (10 per cent of them) would enjoy it equally, our fireworks legislation costs $200 million a year in lost fun. Is it worth more than this in reduced death and injury? In the five years before the 1997 legislation, fireworks killed one person a year and injured 1,500. Most fireworks injuries are minor, but let us be generous and say that the average injury was the kind that you would be willing to spend $20,000 to avoid. If the legislation halved the number of injuries and avoided every death, that is a benefit of only $18 million a year.
Let us not dwell on the numbers. The problem is not one of precision. Our regulators do not even try to calculate the value of the fun they forbid. When they banned adults from taking more than two children to a public swimming pool, did they calculate the cost in enjoyable outings that children will miss? When they outlawed Ecstasy, did they take account of the ecstasy that law-abiding citizens would be denied?
We have only nanny's inconsistency to thank that skiing, rugby, oral sex and all the other risks we take for the sake of pleasure are not illegal. But we cannot rely on inconsistency, especially when the regulatory trend is so clear. We need legislators who recognise that joyless immortality is neither possible nor desirable, and who can hold their nerve even when confronted with dead children.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, OBAMA WATCH (2), EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.