Raina Kelley: Obama, Class and Race

If a pollster called to ask me about my favorite music, I would lie. I would not admit that my iPod contains not only Hall & Oates but also Dan Fogelberg and The Doobie Brothers. If you really want to get me lying, ask about my recycling habits, the number of Mary Janes I own and whether I surreptitiously go to the checkout counter at the bookstore with the latest Dean Koontz novel tucked under my New Yorker. Some things are just so unfashionable, it is impossible to admit to them. So, too, is racism. No one wants to be seen as a bigot; it reeks of ignorance. However, like Céline Dion, racism still inexplicably prospers. That's why media analysts have been making so much out of the Pew Research Center poll revealing that, to 16 percent of white Democrats, race was the most important or a very important factor in deciding whom to vote for in the primaries. Of those people, 76 percent planned to vote for Clinton. An Associated Press poll reported similar findings. The numbers led The New York Times to ask: "Is the Democratic Party hesitating about race as it moves to the brink of nominating an African-American to be president?"

Maybe. But I'm not sure that's the real story here. Those numbers, seemingly so telling about race, may have as much to say about another ancient American struggle: class. The idea that the black candidate is successfully being portrayed as an elitist by the two white candidates is priceless, and may be the truest indicator of how far African-Americans have come since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago. Perhaps Obama does not represent the scary-black-man narrative so much as an unfamiliar-class narrative. Bill Clinton was smirkingly hailed as our first "black president"—he was, as Toni Morrison had it, born poor to a single mother. He played saxophone and loved junk food. By those standards, Obama may become our first post-stereotype black president (no quote marks necessary). Raised by his white maternal relatives and educated at Columbia and Harvard, Obama is the face of a well-to-do black professional class that does exist, even if we don't see much of it on TV.

If Obama seems alien, it may not be simply because he's the African-American presidential front runner, but because he's an African-American politician who doesn't flaunt his scars. Instead, he seems improbably blessed with good fortune and holds himself up as an example of the American Dream as reality. As he says again and again in speeches, only in this country would his story be possible.

The story of an African-American who rose to great heights despite the color of his skin and the humility of his beginnings resonated with white, blue-collar voters facing tough times in Wisconsin and Iowa. But in Ohio and Pennsylvania, his message fell short. Even taking into account the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. uproar, which certainly fueled racial doubt among some whites, it seems unlikely that race alone explains the difference in states that are so similar in so many ways.

But other Obama missteps have helped to create the impression—fueled by the Clinton campaign and some in the press—that Obama is a fussy, stuffy elitist who speaks grandly about America but looks down on Americans from a higher, distant place. None was more ridiculous than the wholly manufactured flag-pin controversy. Yet why didn't Obama simply point out that neither Hillary, nor George Stephanopoulos, nor Charlie Gibson, nor most people in the Philadelphia debate audience was wearing pins, either? Did that mean their patriotism was in doubt? Other stumbles have proved harder to deal with. Michelle Obama's comments about only now finding pride in America and Obama's own "bitter" comments on guns and religion have allowed fellow millionaires Clinton and, more and more, McCain to paint him as out of touch with working folks.

Does John McCain really run out to Costco when there aren't a couple of dozen camera-toting reporters along for the ride? Does anyone really believe Hillary feels a deep kinship with deer hunters? Please. Yet it's working, in part because Obama does seem to lack that natural (or fakeable) humility that Americans require of successful presidential candidates (even George W. Bush summoned it, at least the first time around). Though hardly disdainful or haughty, Obama has a whiff of entitlement that can border on self-congratulation. He is the smartest kid in the class, and he knows it. This is a strange sight for those of us used to a black rhetoric that often falls back on slavery and segregation to ward off charges of pride. It was only last year, after all, that Al Sharpton huffed: "Ain't too many of us grew up in Hawaii and went to Harvard." Black voters are now united behind Obama, but many blue-collar white voters still don't quite seem to know what to make of him. When voters ask themselves the age-old polling-booth question "Is he like me?" they aren't necessarily wondering about his race.

Some of them are. It's just not possible to tell from the polls how many. People don't always tell pollsters the truth, especially about race—but about class as well. The polls are wrong often enough to make that clear. It also doesn't help that the numbers can be read so many different ways. In that nationwide Pew poll, 83 percent of white Democrats said that race had nothing to do with their voting decision in the primaries. Sixty percent of them said they voted for Clinton, too. Does that indicate that those 60 percent are racist, or show that they didn't vote for Obama because he is black? Clearly not. As Scott Keeter, director of survey analysis for the Pew Research Center, told me: "I'm not sure people have broken the code on how race factors into voting choices." Certainly the pollsters haven't, in part because there's no penalty for lying to a pollster—for giving that stranger on the other end of the phone a version of the person you'd like to be and not the one you are. I recycle only occasionally, I own 13 pairs of Mary Janes and I read Dean Koontz, in hardback. But like I said, ask me for the record and watch me lie.

Join the Discussion