Barack Omama and the White Working Class

 The Real Deal!

* A Golden Oldie

As the general election approaches the verbose wannabe prescient white pundits who insist that white workers will never cast their votes for a President Obama fail to tell us is why they are so confident on this question.   Do they all have crystal balls?   Or perhaps it is because poor white folk putting racial preference ahead of their economic interests is par for the course in the bizarre masquerade in black and white that passes for race relations in America. 

Everyday we witness the absurd Orwellian spectacle of people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reily and Pat Buchanan railing against the “racism” of Reverend Jeremiah Wright while they conduct a non-stop ritual lynching of Barack Obama from the broadcast booths of stations that refuse to hire African Americans as on-air hosts such as WABC – White Apartheid Broadcast Company – the premiere talk station in America. 

Hence the working class white audiences they target – the proverbial “angry white males” – about whom their better educated bourgeois white brothers know little and care less – receive a non-stop dose of racist propaganda and white resentment.  While the White Apartheid Broadcast Company fires up the misplaced resentments of these displaced anxiety ridden white workers 24/7, no one is telling them the real story and preaching a message of human brotherhood and interracial cooperation.  One can only wonder what goes on in their churches, many of them Catholic, which are as segregated on Sunday mornings as the line-up at WABC radio.   My portrait of who these blue collar white workers are is not mere conjecture; I know whereof I speak from both scholarly research and personal experience. 

            The recent Democratic primary election in Pennsylvania is a poignant case in point, and may well prove a harbinger for the general election without some vigorous campaigning from both Clintons.  They especially need Bill out on the stump because he is the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the Appalachian region – which stretches from New York to Tenneesee – and he did it twice!   By contrasts only 48 of the 410 counties in the region voted for John Kerry four years ago and only 66 of the region’s counties went for Al Gore in 2000. 

The voting patterns in this region present us with a portrait of the racial attitudes among the white working class, for this region has more impoverished and badly educated white folks than anywhere else in America.  Hence it came as no surprise to this writer that Hillary Clinton carried Lackawanna County Pennsylvania by over 80%.  

            The next morning all the clueless talking heads were yakking away about how Barack just can’t bust the grape an put Hillary away because ”he can’t win the blue collar white ethnic vote; Yhadda yhadda yhadda!”   After stating the obvious, that Hillary had busted Barack’s butt at the polls in dramatic fashion, the conversation went quickly downhill.  I listened in vain for any hint that white racism, with it’s commitment to the ideology of white supremacy, had played any role in determining the outcome of the vote. 

 Instead we were subjected to an endless barrage of ignorant prattle about the effects of Obama’s comments regarding the desperate lives of small town Americans in a rustbelt state whose manufacturing sector has been exported to countries where union organizers are routinely murdered!  One is forced to wonder why the pundits and reporters don’t tell these people what their real problems stem from, rather than fake shock and outrage when Barack Obama exposes their anger and confusion. 

The truth is that there is a deeply racist strain among the largely Slavic Catholic population in Lackawanna County, a coal mining region of North East Pennsylvania, that goes back a while.   The scholarly evidence for that claim can be found in many sources, but the most impressive and relevant to our discussion of the role of race in the politics of the white ethnic working class is The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics.  Written by Dr. Dan T. Carter, a Bancroft Prize winning southern historian, this learned text plots as if on a graft the movement of northern white workers from “Yellow Dog Democrats” to “Reagan Republicans.”  And his recreation of George Wallace’s 1968 foray into the northern states in search of like minded whites – i.e. white racists – is an eye opener. 

            Although Prof. Carter provides a plethora of evidence one example will suffice to demonstrate the level of anti-black hatred Wallace found among northern ethnic white workers of the sort that Bill O’Reily Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity preach to by the millions on a daily basis.  Recounting a speech George Wallace made in Massachusetts during his ill fated 1968 campaign for the presidency at the height of his fame as America’s number one racist politician, Prof. Carter quotes Tom Turnipseed – a top aid to Wallace whose grandfather was a “dedicated Klansman” and had “received a gubernatorial pardon for killing a black man over a ‘trifling’ matter in the 1920’s.   “While most followers were satisfied just to listen to Wallace’s talk of ‘skinning heads’ and ‘popping skulls’ others wanted the real thing. 

Tom Turnipseed got a taste of that dark side when he stopped in a small working class district outside Webster Massachusetts…to arrange a Wallace Rally at a local Polish-American club.  Their members, club officers told him after a few drinks at a local bar, were one hundred percent behind the Alabama governor.  ‘Now let’s get serious a minute,’ said the club president.  When Wallace is elected president, he’s going to round up all the niggers and shoot them, isn’t he?’”   When Turnipseed told them “Naw…We’re just worried about some agitators,” their mood changed dramatically. “This guy got pissed …and he said ‘Well I don’t know whether I’m for him or not.”

            The most telling part of Professor Carter’s analysis is his careful documentation of the central role played by the firebrand racist George Wallace, in formulating the political blueprint that the Republican Party would employ under Richard Nixon as the  infamous “Southern strategy” to become the majority party in the US.  At the time Wallace was world famous for personally standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama in defiance of a Federal Court order and yelling: “Segregation Now!  Segregation tomorrow!  Segregation forever!!” as a group of young Afro-American students tried to go to class. This was the man whom millions of white workers in the north chose as their hero; they even voted for him for President en mass!   And the Republican’s learned their lesson from this even while publicly distancing themselves from George Wallace.

            These white Massachusetts workers share not only the same class background as the people in Lackawanna County Pa., but also ethnicity, religion and anti-black racism.  Yet I would have been convinced that Barack would lose Lackawanna County big time because of his race even if I had never read Dr. Carter’s book, because I have some first had evidence to make my case. 

I became aware of the virulent anti-black racism of the whites in Lackawanna County Pennsylvania when I met one of the region’s finest daughters, a child of that same Slavic Catholic working class, and against all odds we fell madly in love.  It was a crazy thing that could only have happened in America during the 1960’s, when our society was in upheaval and old injustices were being eradicated through militant struggle, and some  white and black Americans came together in spite of the criminal acts of violent white racists.  

            The day Tanya and I met it was purely by chance. I was presenting a lecture on the history of the African and Afro-American liberation movements in the twentieth century, sponsored by the Philadelphia Board of Education, and she to just happened to attend on a lark, tagging along with a group of her fellow Philadelphia public school teachers.  By the time we met all traces of her background as a Pennsylvania coal miner’s daughter had disappeared.  Although she was only 23, and I was 25, she had traveled to Europe and Brazil and hopped around the Caribbean.  Tanya had earned two degrees from distinguished universities and was a member of the National Honor Society. That’s how she got the opportunity to attend these elite universities in the first place; it was a road seldom traveled by coal miner’s daughters from Lackawanna County. Tanya was, like Michele Obama observed about herself, “the evidence of what investment in public education can produce.”

    Tanya’s Luminous Smile was like first morning light 

My Lackawanna Lady Love

      Tanya had a passion for fashion and was a real clothes horse.  Yet she was at once a very modern woman completely at home in the testosterone polluted world of the hard sciences, and an artist of a house keeper to boot.  She was a gourmet cook who had studied at the famous Cordon Bleu in Paris, and knew all about the chemistry of foods.  And she was a gifted seamstress and designer who would go down town when the new fashion collections came out and stand outside the display windows with her sketch pads and copy the design, come home and make a pattern from her sketches, go down into the garment district and acquire the finest fabrics, then make the garment to fit her fabulous frame perfectly.  Plus she was a stunning blond beauty on top off all that and I was her first lover.  

    Five foot ten inches in her stockings, Tanya was well over six feet in high heels…and she loved them.  She was the kind of stunner who could stop traffic or command the attention of men – and women with an eye for fashion – in any room she entered.  And she loved me madly.  She wanted to be my baby’s mama.  And she made no bones about it; early on she let me know she wanted to have my babies.

            The reason why she wanted to have brown skinned curly haired babies was because of a bizarre experience she had before we met involving race and the “good white people” of Lackawanna County, who convinced her that they – her family prominent among them – were sick and twisted when it came to questions of race.   Since there were no black people around, except in far away Scranton, questions about race relations wasn’t a part of the conversation among her family and friends growing up.  But once she moved to Philadelphia, remember this was during the era of black radicalism and urban riots, she would get a steady stream of questions laced with vulgar racist comments about African Americans. 

At first this was merely annoying because she had black colleagues whom she had grown fond of and the Principal of her school was a black man, who she thought very highly of.  At the time Philadelphia had an old black middle class, and she had discovered that some of these African American families had achieved affluence and were broadly cultured before her ancestor’s ever left Eastern Europe -mine among them.  If I had a dollar for every time she said my family was superior in education, culture  and achievement to hers I would be living as large as P. Diddy.

            Being real swift on the cap, it didn’t take her long see that the people of Lackawanna were railing at ghost with their simple minded notions about black people because she was getting to know all kinds of fascinating Afro-Americans. Then she met me…and everything changed.  After we started hanging out she would get really pissed off when she went home for holidays and her uncle’s would start in with the “nigger” jokes and general put downs of black people, although none of them really knew any black people. 

The incident that pushed her to challenge the racist attitudes of her family and insist that they not use racist language in her presence or she would stop coming home to visit, was when the mother of her favorite student abruptly withdrew the child from class and enrolled her in another school. The catalyst that sparked this drastic step was the fact that Tanya noticed that a beautiful, gifted, little brown girl in her class had a Slavic name, and she later learned that the girl’s father was from Lackawanna County.

            Since the name was so unusual, Tanya could think of only one person with the name: an elderly widow woman in her home town.  When she asked her mother if the woman had any children she said that the woman had a son who lived in Philadelphia.   She went on to say that she had seldom seen him over the years because when he came home he visited his mother and split back to Philly; he didn’t get around the old town much anymore.  It didn’t take much for Tanya to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and when her student’s mother came to pick up her daughter from school she told her that her husband was from her hometown.  She never saw the kid again!

            A sensitive and loving soul, Tanya was crushed and still grieving over the abrupt separation from her favorite student when we met.  And she would soon decide that here was her chance to have a beautiful brown baby of her own.   But I was skeptical about having a mixed race child in racist America, and after she told me about the racist attitudes of her family that was that.  There was no chance I was going to bring a child into that mess.  I had read the story of Phillipa Schyler, the beautiful and supremely gifted daughter of the black writer George Schyler and a blond Texas beauty Queen from a filthy rich family. 

It was one of the great love stories of the twentieth century – far more productive and romantic than the union between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  But it was also tragic.  Although Phillipa was a musical prodigy who was performing the masterworks for the piano at eight years old, and her compositions were compared to the young Mozart’s by some of the nation’s leading music professors, plus she was also a stunning beauty, her white family never even agreed to even meet her!  When her mother went home she had to pretend that her daughter didn’t exist!  And this screwed Phillipa up for life.  I wanted no part of that, and I had no intention of enduring any racist insults from her family for a nano-second. 

            As far as I was concerned everybody in Lackawanna County could kiss my black ass!  A sentiment I remain loyal to.  After seven years together we broke up:  mainly because of the racism of her family and community.  But she was a magnificent woman and had there been no race problem in America I would have married her faster than Zorro could draw his sword!  Less than six months after we broke up I met my wife, a wonderful African American lady who also hails from a coal mining town in Pennsylvania.   And we produced a pair of beautiful chocolate twins who are grown people now making their mark in the world.

So I have no complaints; yet there remains something tragic about my experience with Tanya.  She lost someone she loved twice because of the racism of her community in Lackawanna Pennsylvania.  So it comes as no surprise that Hillary won the votes of these people four to one, especially since she is willing to appeal to their racism with coded messages.  And act she has repented for in grand fashion – witness the speech in Unity New Hampshire.  Barack Obama is holding no grudges, and since I can’t be more royal than the King I ain’t mad at her either.  This is the ideal circumstance to say let bygones be bygones.


            Thus it is my actual knowledge of the racial attitudes of the white ethnic blue collar class that enables me to see with great clarity the critical role that race could play in this presidential election. This was made quite clear in the primary elections in North Carolina and Indiana. The voting patterns show that few working class whites voted for Obama.   Unable to admit the truth about white working class racism, the pundits hem, haw and stutter as they dance around the truth.   Yet every time they use the euphemism “Reagan Democrats” they are tacitly admitting that racism is determining these people’s political choices.  

Hence what Barack needs is for somebody who has the ear of the white proletariat to serve as his surrogate.  Because the truth is that white workers have often voted against their interests in a futile quest to maintain a system of “white supremacy”, seduced by white supremacist propaganda that told them the advance of black people was their death nell.  They even supported slavery although it denied them the opportunity to bargain for a decent wage for themselves, keeping them impoverished.  Hence we should make no mistake about it; Bruce Springsteen backing Barack is no mere celebrity endorsement, it could redirect the tide of history.  For he is a true voice of the progressive white working class that is represented by intelligent unionist like the UAW, and his endorsement will give them another talking point for the unelightened and wavering white workers.

            For most of the twentieth century only committed Marxist believed that unity between the black and white working classes could be achieved in racist America.  The skeptics ranged from the broadly learned Dr. DuBois, to twisted redneck crackers like Strom Thurman, to my uncle Buddy Harris.  Strom Thurman was convinced such unity could not be achieved because self respecting white men would never break bread with “niggers,” even if it prevented them from organizing themselves to collectively bargain in their own economic interests with the giant corporations who were exploiting them, because the unorganized pool of black labor could always be employed to break their strikes!  

            My Uncle Buddy was so suspicious of the working class whites he grew up around he walked out of a Communist Party meeting in Philadelphia and fled the party – whose program was making a lot of sense to the son of a black Georgia landowner who had been driven from his home by white terrorists just for being an industrious man – because they accepted white southerners in the membership.  Uncle Buddy was as convinced as Strom Thurman that white southerners couldn’t change.  And Dr. DuBois, who brought infinitely more analytic tools to the subject, thought that any attempt to organize American workers around class issues rather than questions of race and ethnicity would be defeated by the peculiar sociological realities of American society.  

            Dr. DuBois argued that the average white American worker would identify with the rich and powerful in their racial/ethnic groups before they would join hands with some “niggers” to fight their bosses for better wages and working conditions.  And too often the prescient Dubois proved right.  In any case’ the racism and ignorance of the white working class threatens to wreck the chances for Barack Obama to turn our nation away from war, racism, and hostility to the public interests that has been the hall mark of Republican rule.  We shall see how things turn out…but that’s how it looks from here.

By: Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem New York

June, 2008

* This essay is taken from a forth coming book, “Ouantum Shift: Reflections On The Obama Phenomenon

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