The fear of white decline

Hillary Rodham Clinton is right. She has the broader and whiter political coalition, so she should, by all rights, be the Democratic presidential nominee.

After all, in other realms of the political process, we routinely refer to “black districts” or “Latino districts” and speak of the necessity of those jurisdictions to be represented by black or Latino elected officials. Well, then, because the American population is 66% white, maybe the United States is a de facto white district that should be represented accordingly.

Don’t scoff at the idea. Ethnic and racial self-determination have been underlying factors in the formation of modern nations. Israel is one example, along with anti-colonial revolutions and states in the Third World. The principle of ethnic self-determination made its way into the United Nations Charter, and it lurks in contemporary domestic discussions about the political and cultural rights of every kind of minority.

The Clinton campaign’s assertion of her electability based on “hardworking white American” voters reveals deep divisions in the Democratic coalition. But it isn’t a sign of the resurgence of white supremacy in America. Rather, it is a formal re-articulation of whiteness as a social category and a racial interest group.


For decades now, scholars have been writing about the invisibility of whiteness. To be white in America meant that you were a member of the default category that just isn’t discussed. In 2000, journalists didn’t incessantly mention that George W. Bush was seeking to become the 43rd white male president of the United States. No one even thinks in those terms. It’s implied. It’s one of the perks of dominance. We generally mention race when we speak of nonwhites.

Since the civil rights movement, though, it’s also been taboo to speak of the collective interests of white people in polite company. To mention whites as an interest group -- in the way we do minority groups -- hearkens back to segregation and worse.

Sure, we’ve discussed the importance of subgroups of whites -- soccer moms and NASCAR dads. But analysts didn’t treat their whiteness as the primary thing that determined their political behavior, in the way that, say, Latino voters are almost always presumed to vote based on ethnic considerations.

But the Obama-Clinton rivalry seems to have changed all that, and we’re now openly discussing white working-class voters in ways that make clear that their racial interests play a role in their political preferences. Last week, exit polls in West Virginia showed that Barack Obama might be facing some fierce racial resistance if he becomes the Democratic nominee. More than half of West Virginia Democratic voters -- 95% of whom are white -- said they would be dissatisfied if Obama won the nomination.


Is this white supremacy? No, in fact it might be its opposite, an acknowledgment that white privilege has its limits. With immigration and globalization reformulating who we are as a nation, it isn’t the white elites that are threatened by the changes; rather, it’s the nearly 70% of whites who are not college educated who figure among the most insecure of Americans. Many feel that their jobs are being outsourced or taken by immigrants -- legal or otherwise -- and that their culture is being subsumed. When Clinton promises to make their voices heard, she’s appealing not to Anglo-Saxon racial triumphalism but to the fear of white decline.

Granted, not everyone who fits under the rubrics of “white, working class, not college educated” is going to vote against Obama. But by rallying to Clinton’s faltering candidacy, some sectors of white society might be trying to solidify the old racial boundaries of American nationhood. It’s not so much that they are hoping to reclaim their place, but that they are seeking to carve out a niche and demanding that, at the very least, the presidency remains “theirs.”

Like black or Latino activists who insist that a particular congressional district should be represented by one of their own, the disgruntled white working-class, non-college-educated voters might be demanding that their majority status still translate into something at least symbolically meaningful to them.

But that doesn’t make it right. No matter who wins the presidency, there is one thing we ought to learn from this campaign. In our rapidly diversifying nation, where we are all becoming minorities, the idea that any given group has an inalienable claim on a particular political seat, appointment or office based on demographics has officially outlived its usefulness.


Romantic notions of ethnic self-determination and multiculturalism may have once served to dismantle empires and garner attention for forgotten minorities. But today they are more likely to nurture the kind of white nationalism on which Clinton has placed her last political hopes.