Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
The greatest departure from the script of the American caste system was the election of an African-American to the highest office in the land. History has shown that there would be consequences to this disruption of the social order, and there were. What follows is not an analysis of the presidency of Barack Obama, but rather a look into the caste system’s response to his ascension and the challenges it would place in his path.
First, to break more than two centuries of tradition and birthright, it would take the human equivalent of a supernova—a Harvard-trained lawyer, a U.S. senator from the land of Lincoln, whose expertise was the Constitution itself, whose charisma and oratory matched or exceeded that of most any man who had ever risen to the Oval Office, whose unusual upbringing inclined him toward conciliation of the racial divide, who famously saw the country as not blue states or red states but as the United States, whose wife, if it could be imagined, was also a Harvard-trained lawyer with as much star power as her husband, who, together with their two young daughters, made for a telegenic American dream family, and who, beyond all this, ran a scrupulous, near-flawless campaign, a movement really. It would take an idealist, who believed what most Americans would have sworn was impossible, for a black man to make it to the White House.
Secondly, his opponent, a beloved and aging war hero from Arizona, a wise and measured moderate Republican in a party that had grown more conservative, ran a less-than-energetic campaign and made several misjudgments, the most significant of which was choosing an unpredictable former governor of Alaska, a woman prone to gaffes and to quirky, word-salad misstatements, as his running mate.
Then, in the months leading up the election, a once-in-a-generation financial catastrophe descended on a country that seemed on the brink of financial ruin under the Republican administration then in power. Wall Street firms collapsed before our eyes, and the value of American homes, the primary source of many citizens’ wealth, plunged in value, leaving millions of voters underwater.
In October 2008, a few weeks before the election, envelopes arrived in the mailboxes of millions of American households, mailings that became inadvertent leaflets in favor of the Democrat: the quarterly 401(k) statements that showed losses of as much as 40 percent of people’s savings in the last year under the Republican president. By that November, some 12 million homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth in what was now being called
the Great Recession, among the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression.
People in the dominant caste who might have been on the fence about taking a chance on an African-American candidate were looking at massive losses with no end in sight.
had been Obama’s mantra during times that badly needed it. A record tide of people from the lower and middle castes, people who swelled with pride and whose votes now felt like a mission, came out for him, and, along with just enough dominant-caste voters who believed in him, too, swept Obama into the White House. The world was so joyous that a committee in Norway awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize within months of his inauguration. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention,” the Nobel committee said, “and given its people hope for a better future.”
Over the course of American history, the idea of a black man in the Oval Office was virtually unthinkable. But from a caste perspective, and beyond his own personal gifts, his singular origin story was one that the caste system would be more willing to accept, if any. His growing up in Hawaii, the son of an immigrant from Kenya and of a white woman from Kansas, was free from the heaviness of slavery and Jim Crow and the hard histories of regular African-Americans. His story did not trigger the immediate discomfort in the dominant caste, unlike those of everyday black people, who, if you scratch their family trees long enough, you run into a sharecropper cheated at settlement or an ancestor shut out of a neighborhood because of redlining, people for whom these injustices were not history, but their own or their foreparents’ actual
Rather, his origin story freed people in the dominant caste from having to think about the unsavory corners of American history. They could regard him with curiosity and wonderment and even claim him as part of themselves, if they chose. They could perhaps feel a connection to his mother and to his mother’s mother, who tragically died just before Election Day. Both women were from the dominant caste and would not get to see how very far he would go in this world. The Delaware senator who would become his running mate, though, seemed to be speaking, however awkwardly, for some others in the ruling majority. “
You’ve got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” said Joe Biden. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
After the election, white Americans in both parties extolled the progress the country had made in the past generation, relieved to be able to say that racism was a thing of the past. “We have a black president, for heaven’s sakes,” they would say, by way of example. The fact is, though, this was a development that the majority of the dominant caste was not truly in a position to claim. The majority of white voters did not support him in either of his presidential bids. He had star power and a way with babies and pensioners, but no matter how refined and inspirational, well-spoken and conciliatory he was, Obama’s victory did not occur because most voters in the dominant caste had become more open-minded and enamored of him. As with other recent Democrats running for president, he won despite the bulk of the white electorate.
Even as they proclaimed a new post-racial world,
the majority of white Americans did not vote for the country’s first black president. An estimated 43 percent went for him in 2008. Thus, a solid majority of white Americans— nearly three out of every five white voters—did not back him in his first election, and fewer still—39 percent—voted for him in 2012. In the former Confederate state of Mississippi, only one in ten white voters pulled the lever for Obama. For much of his presidency, he was trying to win over people who did not want him in the Oval Office and some who resented his very existence.
As a measure of the enduring role of caste interests in American politics, the shadow of the Civil War seemed to hang over the 2008 election. It turned out that Obama carried every state that Abraham Lincoln had won in 1860, an election with an almost entirely white electorate but one that became a proxy for egalitarian sentiment and for the future of slavery and of the Republic. “
The cultural divides of the Civil War on racial grounds,” wrote the political scientist Patrick Fisher of Seton Hall University, “can thus still be considered to be influencing American political culture a century and a half later.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is said to have predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation for having stood up for the citizenship rights of African-Americans. That prophecy would prove to be correct but also an understatement. The Democrats would lose more than just the South and for well longer than a generation. From that moment forward, white Americans overall moved rightward toward the Republicans as the country enacted more egalitarian policies.
In the more than half century since that prophecy of 1964, no Democrat running for president has ever won a majority of the white vote.
Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to win the presidency with a majority of the white electorate. Since that time, the Democrat who came closest, who attracted the largest percentage of white voters—at 48 percent—was fellow southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976. Only three Democrats have made it to the Oval Office since the Johnson and the civil rights era—Carter, Obama, and Bill Clinton, who won with 39 percent of the white vote in 1992 and 44 percent in 1996.
With whites pulling away from the Democrats and accustomed to prevailing in presidential elections through their sheer numbers, the outcome of the 2008 election was seen not merely as the defeat of John McCain, but perhaps a defeat of the historic ruling majority itself, “a challenge to the absoluteness of whites’ dominance,” wrote the political scientist Ashley Jardina of Duke University, who specializes in the behavior of the white electorate.
Combined with census projections of an end of the white majority by 2042, Obama’s victory signaled that the dominant caste could undergo a not altogether certain but still unthinkable wane in power over the destiny of the United States and over the future of themselves and their children, and their sovereign place in the world. “
The symbolism of Obama’s election was a profound loss to whites’ status,” Jardina wrote.
This was something that no one in the dominant caste, or any other group in the country, for that matter, had ever had to contemplate. It meant that people who had always been first now had to consider the potential loss of their centrality. For many, “
the ability of a black person to supplant the racial caste system,” wrote the political scientist Andra Gillespie of Emory University, was “the manifestation of a nightmare which would need to be resisted.”
That sense of fear and loss, however remote, “brought to the fore, for many whites,” Jardina wrote, “a sense of commonality, attachment, and solidarity with their racial group,” a sense of needing to band together to protect their place in the hierarchy.
The caste system sprang into action against this threat to the preexisting order. “
The single most important thing we want to achieve,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, on the eve of the midterm elections in 2010, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
The opposition party would not succeed in denying him a second term but would obstruct virtually every proposal he made and force him to resort to executive orders to accomplish his aims. Within nine months of his inauguration, the president was addressing a joint session of Congress on his healthcare plan when a heckler interrupted an ordinarily staid affair of pomp and ritual by yelling, “You lie!” The outburst came from a Republican congressman from South Carolina, Joe Wilson. It was considered so out of order that the House of Representatives passed a resolution of disapproval against Wilson, and Sen. John McCain, the Republican who lost to Obama in 2008, declared that there was “
no place for it in that setting or any other.”
In early 2012, Air Force One landed just outside Phoenix for a presidential visit to a manufacturing plant in Arizona, a routine stop at the start of an election year in which the president would be seeking a second term. There on the tarmac to greet the president was Jan Brewer, the state’s Republican governor. The encounter quickly turned tense for such a moment of formality. As the wind rustled the tarmac, the governor, blond and slight of build, handed the president an envelope, and soon she was looking stern and agitated at him.
She jabbed her finger at the leader of the free world, inches from his nose, her mouth in mid-yell, like a principal scolding a child facing detention. In the photograph of their encounter, the president appears calm and stoic, if slightly bemused, which had been his usual demeanor, as she sticks her finger in his face, as if to be saying,
“And another thing…”
In some countries, and with previous presidents, this might be seen as an act of aggression, a threat to a nation’s head of state, a display of profound disrespect, were it to happen at all.
The photograph would become one of the defining images of the opposition and resentment President Obama faced in office. The difference in the accomplishments of these two people would not have been apparent from the optics of who was chastising whom. While the president was a graduate of Columbia and of Harvard Law School and had made a methodical march from state senator to U.S. senator to the Oval Office, the woman with the temerity to point her finger in his face had a two-year certificate as
a radiology technician, and had risen to the governor’s mansion by accident of succession, after having been secretary of state. She was now a governor, one out of fifty, compared to the U.S. president, the highest office in the land and the most powerful in the world.
But Gov. Brewer was from the dominant caste, her birth-ascribed status seen as inherently above his, and she did not shrink from a gesture that had the look of putting a man from the subordinate caste in his place, no matter his station. The disagreement on the tarmac had presumably arisen over a passage in a book she had written, in which she described a meeting the two of them had had some time before, a depiction that he considered inaccurate. In it, she had complained that he “
thought he could lecture me, and I would learn at his knee.” The envelope she handed him was an invitation to see the Arizona border with Mexico, given that they had differing views on border security.
Afterward, Governor Brewer denied what everyone could see. “I was not hostile,” she told reporters. “I was trying to be very, very gracious.” She went as far as to say that it was, in fact, she who felt unsafe. “I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that he had,” she said, even though the exchange had been in full view of cameras and Secret Service and elected officials, and despite the fact that it was she, after all, who was wagging her finger in his face, not the other way around.
The encounter put the governor in the spotlight for the moment, and she used it to raise money for her political action committee, according to news reports at the time, and to fire up her base. She told potential donors that the message she was really giving the president that day was: “
You have ONE more year.”
An entire machinery had moved into place upon the arrival of the first head of state from the subordinate caste. A new party of right-wing detractors arose in his wake, the Tea Party, vowing to “take our country back.” A separate movement of skeptics, who would come to be known as birthers, challenged the legitimacy of his citizenship and required him to produce an original birth certificate that they still chose to disbelieve. His opponents called him the “food stamp” president and depicted the president and the First Lady as simians. At opposition rallies, people brandished guns and bore signs calling for “Death to Obama.”