Older white voters ‘uncomfortable’ with Obama

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WASHINGTON — In August 2009, in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews asked me about the angry, frequently irrational voters who were showing up at town-hall-style meetings around the country to denounce President Obama’s health care policy. Having watched TV news reports, I knew that many of those voters were older white Americans who benefited from Medicare. Why would they oppose a health care policy for others?
Matthews asked whether I thought that some of those voters opposed Obama’s Affordable Care Act because they were uncomfortable with having a black president. I responded that I did. (See video below)

After carefully stating that I didn’t think all opposition to Obama’s health care plans stemmed from racial animus, I said, “I think 45 to 65 percent of the people who appear. . .(at those townhall meetings) are people who will never be comfortable with the idea of a black president.”
As you might have guessed, rightwing pundits were outraged my remarks, which were widely misquoted. According to my critics, I had called the town hall protestors “racists.”
That controversy served as one more reminder — as if I needed one — that Americans remain unable to have a rational discourse about race and its ramifications. That’s most unfortunate since perceptions about race and ethnicity go to the heart of our polarized political culture.
A new study by the widely-respected Pew Research Center confirms my analysis of those older white voters: The study found a growing generation gap in the electorate, with older voters more likely to support Republicans while younger voters are more likely to vote Democratic. Those party alliances, Pew found, are strongly tied to racial perceptions.
“Race and ethnicity are strongly associated with views about government, and in no small part account for some of the greater liberalism of the younger age groups and greater conservatism of older groups. The polling finds that older generations . . .do not fully embrace diversity.”
The Pew study also confirms my strongly-held view that the nation’s fractured political climate is due, in part, to white voters’ fears of a browning America. While younger white Americans have largely embraced the cultural and demographic changes that have transformed politics, entertainment and courtship, older white Americans are uncomfortable — if not alarmed — by those changes.
“For many (ages 65 to 83). . .Obama himself may represent an unwelcome indicator of the way the face of America has changed. Feelings of “unease” with Obama, along with higher levels of anger, are the emotions that most differentiate the attitudes of (older Americans) from those of the youngest generation.”
Take the matter of interracial dating. Overall, Americans have become much more tolerant over the last several decades; 87 percent of Americans now say that they “agree” it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other, according to Pew.
But take a look at the generational break when Pew asked people whether they agreed “completely” with interracial dating: 75 percent of those between 18 and 28 said they did, but only 37 percent of those ages 65 to 83 agreed “completely.”
Notice that neither Pew researchers nor I called those older voters “racists.” The word that I would use to describe the resistance that older white voters have shown toward diversity is “prejudice,” with its roots in the phrase “pre-judge.” They are stuck with long-held notions about such things as gay marriage and interracial dating; those hoary old stereotypes are hard to shake loose.
Indeed, those notions, no matter how wrongheaded, are core convictions for some, and they carry them into the voting booth. Older voters — Pew calls them the “silent generation,” a cohort just younger than the so-called Greatest Generation — turn out heavily in elections, so politicians, especially Republicans, cater to them and their prejudices.
That helps explain why the issue of illegal immigration has become an intractable mess. It is not a difficult problem to solve: comprehensive immigration reform would put those undocumented workers already here on a path to legal status. But the GOP base, which skews older and whiter, won’t hear of it.
Meanwhile, leading political figures, including Obama, studiously avoid the subject of race for fear of provoking a firestorm. The election of a black president didn’t exorcise our remaining racial demons. Instead, Obama’s rise has made it impolite — even politically hazardous — to speak of them.

Comments

  1. Robert Renaldo says:

    Dear Cynthia, this is my attempt to have a brief discussion with someone i’m probably in strong oppisition to. i say that because of the last descriptve word you chose to use( journalist, professor, progressive) …to start: (I said, “I think 45 to 65 percent of the people who appear. . ) i am in the other 55 to 35 percent. i would ask you to consider your premise that possibly more than half( 55%) don’t think as you suggest. in other words, my desire would be that you start to look at things , and more importantly write, speak in your classroom and in all of your public forums, from a positive point of view and please cut down on the the racial backdrop. am i saying stop talking about racial issues,no of course not. i’m simply trying to say the best way to have race continually become a diminishing issue is to address topics of importance without bringing it up in most of our discussions. as i respectfully suggest ,simply consider doing it. to share a few facts about me, my two best friends , and i repeat BEST true friends are an arab guy and a black guy. why am i telling you this, not in the “old” way of trying to justify my position of closeness, but rather to say my parents raised me to look at the character and the honesty and the goodness in someone, their race is a nonissue. the women that i date are strong , intelligent, and self confident, yet we both regognize human frailty . again their race is a non issue. the historical signifigance of the fact that a black man was elected President of the United States was huge… beyond any thing else that has happened in this country in a long time… my wish is that you would talk about that fact alone,and refrain from adding any political opinion or slant when discussing the office. i will continue to hold my conservative views just as you will continue to maintain your progressive ones, i just hope you will stress the individaulality of men and women more and with a little less emphasis on race and the resultant negative affect. Bob

  2. Jason says:

    To the Author
    The idea that older Americans are more racially divided and motivated, I’ll file this one as a ‘water is wet’ article but is still nice to know how wet. Quite frankly I thought we had ‘dried out’ more than this and I thank you for opening my eyes if only a little wider.

    To Robert Renaldo
    One in four under 29 still doesn’t “completely” agree with interracial dating. If we don’t talk about this, sweep our feelings under the rug, they will feel their beliefs are acceptable. If they think like this they should feel embarrassed, they should know they are part of their own minority, and it’s up to us to remind them. I understand your notion that keeping it in the spotlight will only prolong its downfall but that does not jive with history. The south only integrated after the rest of the country would not drop the issue. Fear of being ostracized from your community has always been the strongest tool to both instill and defeat beliefs as clearly hurtful as these.

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