My mom has never had a black person as a peer. What I mean is, she’s been around black people all of her life, but—besides a brief period in grad school—her social surroundings have made it so that she’s never really had black friends, colleagues, bosses or boyfriends. And I’m beginning to suspect that it’s the main reason why she and so many in her generation were slow to rally behind Barack Obama.
For her at least, his politics were not an obstacle. She’s a white woman, born in Arkansas in the late ’30s, trapped in Bible Belt East Texas since I was young. She’s a classic Southern populist/liberal, a life-long Democrat and even an Edwards delegate to the 2004 Texas Democratic Convention. Neither was Obama’s youth a problem, since she gleefully voted for 46-year-old Bill Clinton in 1992. And the issue wasn’t his race, at least consciously: Her own father actually lost his job as superintendent of a segregated school district in part because he wanted to spend what some board members regarded as too much money on the town’s black schools.
But, when I was talking with her late last spring, after Edwards had dropped out of the race and long after she’d decided against Hillary, there was still a pause in her voice, a lack of enthusiasm for Obama. Though the exact words never came up, it became clear to me that she just couldn’t quite trust the “other” to be president, and a black man was clearly “other.” She used a tone that I’ve heard before; for instance, the first time I dated a Latin girl—she was okay with it, but…she was different.
I’m 39. I also grew up in a small Southern town, but 1970s East Texas was a place much-changed from mid-century Arkansas. My schools were fully integrated, though not always comfortably, and I had at least a few black kids as friends from kindergarten on. Our pop culture was integrated, too, to a degree—my older brother may have discouraged me from watching Soul Train, but Fat Albert was my buddy: We hung out every Saturday morning.
Jump ahead 20 or 30 years, and today’s kids (especially in the suburbs) grow up in a ridiculously jumbled world by the standards of my youth. Asian hip-hop dudes? Black punk/metal chicks? Barely even noteworthy—the millennials are defined less by race than by music, dress and slang, the markers of cultural tribes.
What about the big picture? Does social exposure matter in a white voter’s propensity to support Obama? I’m only eyeballing the correlation, but if we look at the breakdown of his support by age, it pretty well matches what we might call the blacks-as-peers transition: If you’re under 30, you’re for Obama 2-1. If you’re over 50, it gets much tighter, a distribution that’s held even as Obama’s overall support has risen, fallen and risen again.
Unfortunately, the best numbers I can find combine everyone from 30 to 49, forcing black-clad Gen Xers into the same category as the youngest Boomer-hippies-turned-yuppies. Their collective numbers skew slightly toward Obama compared with their elders, but only by a hair. I’d love to see a breakdown by decade, to look at the question of whether being in school from the late ’60s on, when integration had really gotten rolling, is a predictor of pro-Obama voting. Or, try by region—is there a link between when an area’s long-term social/racial integration and the percentage of Obama’s white support? Only after we’ve isolated these variables can we take on the real question: Did the rise of Will Smith pave the way for an Obama presidency? (Think about it—tall, skinny, coffee-with-cream, big ears, outgoing manner, the one black guy everyone in the office can agree on).
And what about my mom? She came around, just like the West Virginia Democrats profiled in the Post last week. She got over her disappointment with Edwards to become that rare beast, an Obama evangelist among white East Texans—if a subtle one (he’s a hard sell in a county that went 70 percent for Bush in 2004). The times, they do change.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of Epolitics.