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Understanding The Southern White Voter

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Message WJ Hammond
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The writing of W.J. Cash jangles and clashes against contemporary sensibilities, but reading Cash provides important keys to understanding why Barack Obama won't get the votes of white voters in the South, in Appalachia, and in other areas where so-called "working class" whites live. And the fault is not Obama's, or his policies that are startlingly beneficial to the majority of these white people when compared with McCain's continuation of a failed George Bush. The fault is our own.

Critics dismiss Cash's iconoclastic, 1941 book, The Mind of the South, for promoting stereotypical views of southern whites. But, when those stereotypes become real in the privacy of the voting booth, it is simply foolhardy for any of us who care about this election to ignore them. When voters are willing to sacrifice their own self-interests, and risk the future of this country, to satisfy some deep-seated prejudice about who is capable of serving and who is not, it is time to probe deep into the wound of racism, find its roots, and try in some way to destroy them.

Knowledge and understanding won't guarantee the end of prejudice and bigotry, but they are a beginning. And understand this; racism today is not the active and aggressive force that drove Jim Crowe; it is quiet, subtle, nearly silent. Most that carry racism deep in their psyche vehemently deny it, and believe it. Moreover, almost paradoxically, most who carry racist views are good people; the racism hides deep, working its debilitating poison like a slowly spreading tumor. In The Hidden Wound, Kentucky author, Wendell Berry, explores the "hidden wound" of racism and its pernicious effects on American culture. Of his own exploration, Berry says,
"If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown, the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society."

Naive denial that race will play a large role in this election ignores what is obvious to any pragmatic thinker; race is the issue in this election. In The Content of Our Character, first published in 1991, Shelby Steele made this prescient observation.
"Race is a separate issue in American society, an entity that carries its own potential for power, a mark of fate that class can soften considerably but not eradicate."
We see this working powerfully in the current campaign. One of the most damaging criticisms of Barack Obama is that he is an elitist. He is a Harvard graduate, charismatic, accomplished, part of an emerging "nouvelle elite." He is, simply put, the best product of a continuing Civil Rights movement, and everything America could hope for in ruins of George Bush's leadership coupled with the terrifying vision of a John McCain presidency. Still, all across America, too many white voters unconsciously respond to Berry's "hidden wound" and vote against a black man.

Voting for John McCain over any Democratic candidate in this election is to invite certain disaster, but this tendency to walk happily into ruin is also present in the psyche of white, working class voters. In the Detroit Institute of Art is a painting by Winslow Homer entitled, Defiance: Inviting a shot before Petersburg, Virginia, 1864, that shows Confederate soldier strutting like a rooster on the breastworks during the siege.

What the painting doesn't show is that moments later, the soldier, for all of his courage, bravery, and elan, died from a Union sniper's bullet between the eyes. I know this because the Confederate soldier, who was fifty-two years old at the time, was the great-grandfather of a great friend of mine. I think about this incident often when I try to find reason in the actions and votes of the American working class, and I understand that a stubborn willingness to walk into ruin is a more powerful force than doing what is both right and good when race is included.


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WJ Hammond lives in rural South Carolina where he writes and teaches. He is a life-long Democrat and a progressive thinker.
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Understanding The Southern White Voter