Obama’s election has buried the myth that the US white working class is inherently racist, hopelessly tied to the white elite.

Before the election we were told the so-called socially conservative “Reagan Democrats” (the US equivalent of the “Howard Battlers”) would never vote for a black man. Without a white face to lead the Democrats, it was argued, they’d be reduced to a party of the minorities.

But Obama not only held onto the Democrats’ white vote, he improved it by 2 per cent. In Indiana, a northern manufacturing state and home of your stereotypical “Reagan Democrat”, the white vote increased from 34 to 45 per cent. Obama also took Ohio and the two former confederate states of North Carolina and Virginia, with the help of white voters.

It must be remembered that these swings came in spite of a concerted campaign by the Republicans to use racism to shore up its white base. Sarah Palin appealed to “hockey moms” and “six pack Joes,” accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and said he “doesn’t see America like you and I see America”. These were all coded messages to white workers to stay with the familiar.

This message did resonate in some Southern states where the Republican vote actually grew. But Republicans in many parts of the country were repelled.

While it would be wrong to interpret Obama’s vote as a clear conscious stand against racism, it does show racism isn’t an impenetrable wall. Concern about war, global warming and—in particular —the economy, overrode concern about Obama’s skin colour. “Class trumped race,” concluded sociologist Charles Gallagher.

The end of racism?

While Obama’s victory is a tremendous blow to racism, some pundits are now concluding that the struggle against racism in the US is over. Martin Luther King’s dream had been turned “into a reality”, said Kevin Rudd about Obama’s victory, in a classic piece of overstatement.

The fight against racism, however, was always more than getting one person elected president. The civil rights movement had already opened doors for small numbers of African Americans to advance. The problem is that the vast majority remain disadvantaged, due to deep structures of racism embedded in American society.

Nearly 25 per cent of blacks live below the national poverty line, almost double the rate of 12.7 per cent for all Americans, and these households had the lowest median income of any racial group. The current unemployment rate for African-Americans is double the rate for white Americans.

According to US Department of Justice statistics, black men are more than six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. African Americans are still over-represented in poor housing; in poor health; without health insurance – and more recently—with sub prime loans. Racism affects other minorities also.

Native Americans and Hispanics face similar disadvantage. Raids on undocumented workers are terrorising immigrant communities.

Two Muslim women wearing headscarves at one of Obama’s rallies were barred from sitting behind him, in case they appeared in a photograph or on television. While an apology was issued, it none the less reveals that racism is just below the surface and remains a useful tool for politicians and the corporate elites to sow division and deflect opposition if necessary.

Rooting out racism means more than getting individuals into positions of power; it means challenging the whole class system that promotes and benefits from it.

By Mark Gillespie

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