Race and Class in the Democratic Primaries

Race matters a great deal in the United States, but its workings are intricately tied up with class.


The 2008 Democratic presidential race is an excellent case in point.


According to New York Times writer Kirk Johnson three days after the black Barack Obama’s triumph over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the heavily Caucasian Iowa Democratic Party presidential Caucus, “race didn’t matter” in the contest[1].


Johnson meant to express something obvious and indisputable – that Obama was not rendered un-electable (perhaps I should say un-Caucus-able) in Iowa simply because of the color of his skin.


True enough.  White racism did not kill Obama’s candidacy in white Iowa.


But as an Edwards volunteer  who split my campaign duties between my home and heavily academic Iowa City precinct and more rural and working class towns in eastern Iowa’s Muscatine County, I know very well that Johnson was wrong. So, on numerous levels, including voting behavior, were the thousands of college students and others who could be heard chanting “Race Doesn’t Matter” at Obama campaign rallies and victory speeches during mid and late January and February of 2008 [2].





Race has mattered a great deal in the presidential primaries but it has done so in different and conflicting sorts of ways related to class.  In my home precinct, for example, the “deeply conservative” (Larissa MacFarquhar) Obama’s skin color was frankly a big advantage. It helped make many of my neighborhood’s many “liberal” and relatively affluent whites excessively reluctant to take a hard and honest look at his strong corporate connections and imperial commitments. It encouraged many of them to exaggerate how “progressive” he was and in some cases even to identify criticism of the Obama phenomenon as crypto-racism. Along with the fact that many professional and academic people (being relatively privileged members of the coordinator class) are not especially progressive in the first place, Obama’s race helped them off to the possibility that there was “room to his left.”  It was very difficult to tell them that, as the black liberal-left journalist Gary Younge observed, “Edwards [was] running a far more progressive campaign, stressing corporate greed and pledging a [more, P.S.] rapid exit from Iraq” [3].


Two days before the Iowa caucus, one forthcoming caucus-goer and neighbor told me something I’d been suspecting for some time. Obama, he reflected, was “a way for liberal and moderate whites around here to themselves on the back for not being too prejudiced to vote for a black person.”  But it was all premised, he agreed, on Obama being a "good,” that is non-threatening, middle-class and “not-too fiery black" – one who seemed promised not to confront institutional white supremacy in any meaningful way. Like the racially conciliatory, white-soothing media mogul and mass marketer Oprah Winfrey (who came through Iowa to stump for him a few weeks before the Caucus), Obama could capitalize on many middle class whites’ rejection of “level-one” (state-of-mind) racism (open and conscious bigotry) only because he reassured them he would honor their reluctance to acknowledge the continuing power of deeper, “level two” (state-of-being) – societal and institutional – racism in American life.


In my precinct and across much of heavily liberal and academic Iowa City, Obama was something of a Great White Hope: a chance for relatively privileged whites to feel simultaneously progressive and unthreatened about the great American Race Divide.


Along the way, Obama helped wrap establishment corporate-imperial politics in deceptive “rebel’s clothing.”  He advanced the business and imperial agendas among voters who would have been more likely to inquire into his support of elite programs were he not technically black.


This is an unpleasant reality to consider, perhaps, but I saw it in a very direct and graphic way. 





Things were different in the more rural and blue-collar precincts of Muscatine County.  Canvassing Iowa City one day and more proletarian small towns and rural highways the next provided interesting contrasts.  In the former locale, Republican presidential signs were non-existent and opposition to “my” candidate (Edwards) opposition was mainly about Obama.  Hillary was not much of a factor.


In more working and rural places, Republican signage was more than occasionally visible and Obama support was considerably less apparent. The main opponent was Mrs. Clinton. 


People here were reluctant to be explicit about race but it was clear that many of the less privileged white voters I met beyond the liberal middle-class island of Iowa City were less than comfortable with the idea of “that colored guy” (as one middle-aged white lady in a trailer park described Obama) in the White House.


I would like to think that their greater distance from Obama was about his corporate-friendly economic centrism. There was some of that, particularly when I spoke with union members.  But not many of my white voter contacts in Muscatine County seemed terribly knowledgeable or concerned about who was and who wasn’t the most progressive viable candidate (the most progressive Democratic candidate per se was of course Dennis Kucinich) on economic issues or the Iraq War. If they had been driven in significant ways by that concern, the more conservative and corporate Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have fared as well as she did with them.


The other thing was that Obama is black and the notion of electing him president worked against what the black Marxist W.E.B. DuBois once called the “psychological wage of racism – that false compensatory payment once usefully summarized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the satisfaction of …thinking you are somebody big because you are white” [4]. Such “satisfaction” is much more commonly sought (subconsciously) by people at the bottom of America’s steep socioeconomic structure than by those in positions of relative wealth, power, autonomy, and status.


But this does not mean that Iowa City’s liberal white professors and natural food cooperative members were any or all that much better on race and Obama. There are racism- and classism-preserving white psychological “race wages” above as well as within and below the working class. For some whites in more elite occupational and socioeconomic categories, there exists what might be called a “psychological wage of superficial non-racism” – the boosting of one’s sense of superiority over less well-off whites by exhibiting one’s rejection of uncouth, lower-class racial bigotry (by voting for a certain kind of safe, technically black politician, for example) while simultaneously resisting any substantive challenge to persistent racial advantages accruing to middle- and upper-class beneficiaries of white skin privilege.


Obama is perfectly calibrated for that curious mixture of racial pseudo- benevolence and intra-Caucasian class arrogance.




Intra-Caucasian class difference (and “race wages” no doubt) came into play in heavily New Hampshire as well. Clinton beat Obama by 12 points (47 to 35 percent) among New Hampshire Democratic primary voters with family incomes below $50,000.  Obama beat Clinton by five points (40 percent to 35 percent) among those earning more than $50,000.


College graduates opted for Obama 39 to 34 percent. Clinton won those who had never attended college, 43 percent to 35 percent [5].


As George W. Bush’s former political advisor Karl Rove noted in the Wall Street Journal, “Clinton won working-class neighborhoods and less affluent rural areas.  Obama won the college towns and the gentrified neighborhoods of more affluent communities. Put another way, Mrs. Clinton won the beer drinkers, Mr. Obama the white wine crowd” [6].


Obama was less damaged by white class differences in Iowa because of the nature of that state’s caucus, which is disproportionately attended by middle- and upper-middle class voters. At the same time, the white Iowa Democratic vote was closely divided between two equally formidable white opponents: Edwards and Clinton.  Edwards was much less of a factor in New Hampshire, leaving just one leading white contender to function as the candidate of choice for anyone who didn’t want a “colored guy in the White House.”   





The Obama fans’ “Race Doesn’t Matter” chant expresses childish naiveté and wishful thinking on numerous levels. As Marjorie Valbrun noted in the Washington Post seven days after Obama won the South Carolina:


“The recent images of college students, most of them white, chanting ‘Race doesn’t matter’ at Barack Obama campaign rallies have been heartwarming. The young people have embraced this mantra and buoyed their candidate’s vote tallies in the primaries with earnest and youthful idealism.”


“Admirable? Yes. Impressive? Absolutely. Moving? How could it not be? Racially transcendent? Not a chance.”


“…Call it the I-Love-Obama-thus-racism-no-longer-exists phenomenon. If only things were that simple.”


 “Race matters in almost everything we do. It factors into where we…live, school our children and pray. It determines whom we hire — or don’t hire. It influences how we are viewed by police and treated by the criminal justice system. It grants some people access to better health care and denies others a high-quality public school education. Race mattered during Hurricane Katrina and during the O.J. Simpson trials. It mattered in Jena, La. It mattered to Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and countless other black men. It matters in whom we choose to love or hate, to honor or discredit, to revere or demonize. We make decisions based on race all the time, whether consciously or not, and we do so in ways both big and small.”


“Neither their collective energy nor a million continuous chants could make their mantra true. Their candidate is neither ‘post-racial’ nor ‘race neutral’ or ‘colorless.’ He has not transcended race. The matter of whether such a thing is even possible is a question for another day. He is just an extraordinary black man, but a black man nonetheless, who happens to be running for president. The young, white people who support him happen to love him regardless of his race, much as many black people love him because of it” [7].


I would only offer one correction: many of Obama’s disproportionately affluent white supporters have “loved” him at least partly because (not “regardless”) of his race.





Race mattered a great deal in determining voting behavior during the Democratic primaries following Iowa and New Hampshire.


After New Hampshire, it is true, Obama won the majority of white primary and caucus voters in Virginia, a number of Midwestern and Western states (Wisconsin, Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado) and in his childhood home state of Hawaii. 


As the campaign developed and Clinton launched a forceful counter-attack stressing economic issues and challenging Obama’s “commander-in-chief” credentials, however, white voters tended to side with Clinton in primaries, which are much more broadly based than caucuses.  Obama lost the white vote in Ohio, where a fifth of the white voters told exit pollsters that race was a significant factor in their decision. Fifty-nine percent of these voters favored Clinton over Obama, suggesting that more than 1 in 10 of the state’s Democratic voters were resistant to the notion of a black presidential candidate.  “And that,” the Chicago Tribune noted, “counts only voters willing to tell a clipboard-bearing stranger that race was an important factor in their decision to vote against a black man.”


Among thirty primaries and caucuses for which exit polls are available and Obama was on the ballot, the Tribune found, Clinton won the white vote in twenty-three of the contests while Obama won white voters in just seven of them. He has done particularly badly with poor and working-class white, losing out to Clinton by particularly high margins among Caucasians who lack college degrees and whites who make less than $50,000 per year.


Obama’s core voting base consisted mainly of blacks (who supported him overwhelmingly) and of more educated, affluent, urban and “racially tolerant” whites – the (1980s black Chicago Mayor) “Harold Washington coalition” on a national scale.


It was no accident, then, that Obama tended to dominate elections using the caucus system (examples included Washington, Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, and Minnesota), for more affluent and activist voters enjoy an “outsized voice” in caucuses as opposed to primaries [8].


The racially polarized voting patterns that emerged in the Democratic primaries of March 2008 were quite pronounced.  In the Texas primary of March 4, Obama received fully 84 percent of the black vote but just 44 percent of the white tally.  Clinton got 55 percent of the white vote and just 66 percent of the black vote. In Ohio (March 4th) , Obama got 87 percent of the black vote but just barely more than a third (34 percent) of the white vote.


In this week’s Pennsylvania primary, got 90 percent of the black vote but just more than a third (37 percent) of the white tally. Consistent with the standard class-differentiated Caucasian pattern, Hillary beat Obama by an especially large margin among Pennsylvania whites without college degrees and whites who make less than $50,000. Related to these class differences, Obama lost among Pennsylvania voters who identified “the economy” as their main concern 59 to 41 percent.  He won (by 54 to 46 percent) the more middle class voters who identified “Iraq” as their leading issue [8A]. 


In Mississippi, Obama received a remarkable 92 percent of the black vote and Clinton got more than two-thirds (70 percent) of the white vote. Obama got 78 percent of the black Democratic vote in South Carolina, 78 percent of that vote in California, and 61 percent of that vote in Clinton’s home state of

New York [9].


Obama’s problems with white voters were especially pronounced in the South.  Of the ten former Confederate states that voted by mid-March of 2008, Obama won the white Democratic tally in just one – Virginia.  His triumph with Democratic Caucasians there reflected support from relatively affluent and liberal suburbs surrounding Washington D.C. [10].




Further highlighting the persistent relevance of anti-black bias in white and especially white working- and lower-class voting behavior was a late February Pew Research poll showing that white Democrats would be significantly more likely to defect to the Republican presidential nominee John McCain if Obama was the nominee than if Clinton was. Ten percent of white Democrats surveyed by Pew reported they would cross party lines and support McCain if Clinton was the nominee.  But twice as many – one in five – said they would choose McCain if Obama was the nominee.  A higher share (24 percent) of whites without college degrees acknowledged they’d defect to the GOP standard-bearer if Obama was the nominee [11].


Such findings do not bode well for those who hope or actually believe that Obama was truly leading America “beyond race.” They might have been more ominous if Pew’s survey had been conducted three weeks later, after several television stations played clips in which Obama’s longtime black pastor Jeremiah Wright could be seen and heard calling the United States “the U.S. of KKK” and claiming(with no small justice) that the nation was “founded on the basis of racism” [12].


Anticipation of these sorts of depressing numbers (and indeed of the Wright imbroglio) is quite frankly part of why I supported Edwards (a problematic candidate about whom I held no progressive illusions but who ran to the strongly pro-labor “populist” left of both Hillary and Obama) in Iowa during the fall and winter of 2007-2008.





There’s nothing mysterious about the overwhelming support Obama has gotten from black voters. For black primary participants, the huge majority of whom have chosen Obama (and who tell pollsters in large numbers that race is a major factor in their choice), it’s been a simple and (I think) highly understandable matter of racial pride. Despite lingering reservations about the bourgeois Obama’s “blackness,” the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president naturally carries no small weight in the black community





Class matters in shaping racialized voting behavior in a final way that one is unlikely to see mentioned in the dominant (“mainstream”) media’s campaign coverage. That’s because the corporate media is part of the problem.


We have a business-based ruling class in this country and one of the many methods through which that class rules is by setting strict limits on what can be discussed in elections. Candidates who want to get past the interrelated “hidden primaries” of wealth, corporate power, and corporate media have to stay within a shockingly narrow issue and policy spectrum.  They cannot fundamentally question corporate privilege, U.S. militarism, the benevolence of U.S. global power, or the continuing reality of institutional white supremacy. They cannot substantively take on any of what Dr. Martin Luther called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.


Given the painfully thin policy and ideology band within which candidates are compelled to operate by reigning corporate money and media filters, it’s often hard for voters to discern meaningful and substantive differences between them. The Hillary-Obama duel, featuring two imperial Wall Street Democrats joined at the moral and ideological hip, is a classic case in point.


Given the elite-mandated consensus on critical matters of class, race, and empire, an interesting question arises: what else are primary voters supposed to base their decision on except matters other than policy and ideology? The focus naturally shifts to the very things corporate media and election marketers emphasize in accord with their mission of turning citizens away from issues that matter: candidate image (brand), candidate “qualities,” candidate “character,” candidate “likeability,” and candidate race and gender identity.


On that subject, here is an interesting item from media coverage of the South Carolina primary. According to The New York Times’ Shaila Dewan, reporting from impoverished Orangeburg, South Carolina just days before the South Carolina primary:


“In Orangeburg, unemployment has disproportionately affected blacks even though, at more than 60 percent of the population, they hold the balance of political power.  In 2006, unemployment among here was pushing 20 percent, while among whites it was 3.3 percent.  Thirteen percent of households were below the poverty level, compared with 38 percent of black households.”


“Such dismal statistics have encouraged some voters to listen closely to the candidates’ proposals to give tax rebates, fix the trade imbalance and increase the minimum wage. But with the Democratic front-runners, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, in general agreement on many of those issues, some say discontent over the persistent racial divide – along with anger among some black voters over criticism of Mr. Obama by former President Clinton – will contribute to race-motivated voting on Saturday.”


Dewan mentioned the example of Townsend Pelzer, a black retired maintenance worker, “who said he was going to vote for Mr. Obama.  Asked why, Mr. Pelzer shrugged, smiled, and pointed to his face, saying, ‘Color of my skin, I guess.’”


Scott Mattingly, a white economics teacher in a nearly all-white private school in Bowman, South Carolina, told Dewan that many of his fellow volunteers at the local Obama office were “ignorant of the issues and are far more excited about the concept of a black leader”[14].


Given the absence of serious differences between Hillary and Obama on “the issues,” it does not seem likely that overcoming the ignorance would have altered the curiously race-based voting decisions of presumably white teachers at a segregated white private school in the Deep South. 



Given the facts that “race” (14) remains an extremely powerful factor and in American life and history, it holds special resonance with voters struggling to make meaningful choices within the narrow spectrum that lay at the heart of U.S. political culture.



Paul Street ([email protected]) is the former research director of The Chicago Urban League, He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005), and a forthcoming book on U.S. political culture and the 2008 presidential race.






1.  Kirk Johnson, “We Agreed to Agree and Forgot to Notice,” New York Times, 6 January 2007, sec. 4, p.4. 


2. In this essay I am concerned primarily with electoral politics and voting behavior, not U.S. society as a whole. For my broader reflections on the persistent central role of race, racism, and indeed white supremacy in American life, see (among many possible citations) my books Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York, 2007) and Segregated Schools (New York, 2005), and “The Racist Past Lives On: The Prosecution of Jim Crow’s Ghosts,” ZNet Magazine (March 4, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12234.

3. Gary Younge, “An Obama Victory Would Symbolize a Great Deal and Change Very Little,” The Guardian, 7 January 2008; Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).  On Obama’s corporate-imperial conservatism see my following articles:

“Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; “The Obama Illusion: on the ‘Hopes of Slaves’ and the ‘Hamiltonian Ambitions’ of a Corporate-Imperial ‘Player,’ Z Magazine (February 2007). On Edwards, see “John Edwards and Dominant Media’s Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy,” ZNet Magazine (June 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13177.


4.  Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct” (1967).


5.  Andrew Kohut, “Getting it Wrong,” New York Times, 10 January, 2008, p. A27.


6.  Karl Rove, “Why Hillary Won,” Wall Street Journal, 10 January. 2008, p. A15. 


7.  Marjorie Valbrun, “Race Matters: So Does Hope,” Washington Post, 2 February 2008.


8. Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, “Race Emerging as an Issue in the Democrats’ Campaign,” Chicago Tribune, 13 March 2008, sec. 1. p.6.


8A. See the MSNBC exit poll data on Pennsylvania at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21226004. The numbers are not fully disaggregated and cross-tabulated by race and class and thus understate Obama’s disadvantage with poor and working class whites. 


9. MSNBC, 2008 Primary Results and Exit Polls, read at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21225966; Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, “Racial Issue Bubbles Up Again for Democrats,” New York Times, 13 March 2008, A1, A14.


10. Dorning and Parsons, “Race Emerging.”


11. Dorning and Persons, “Race Emerging.”


12. Jodi Kantor, “Obama Denounces Statements of His Pastor as ‘Inflammatory,’” New York Times, 15 March 2008, p. A10.


13. Shaila Dewan, “Where Issues Carry Dollar Signs,” New York Times, 26 January, 2008, p. A12.


14. More accurately: the oppression structure of racism.


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