Classifying politics

Karol Collymore

Lately I've been obsessed with all the classifications mainstream media and the candidates themselves put on us, the voters. I joke at work that I fit so many of them - young, coffee drinking, black, latino, working women, Catholic - and that must mean I'll be voting for McCain, Clinton and Obama. But today I had the fortune of being home all day and got most of the post-primary wrap up. What stuck with me is what I saw on the News Hour.

A gentleman said that we've got soccer moms, NASCAR dads, lunch pail workers, security moms, latte drinkers, college educated and Volvo drivers. All of this is code for white people. The rest of us just get racial distinctons; black, Asian, Latino and occasionally, Native American. While that sticks out for me because even comments on this blog run from, "How will Latinos vote," to "Why do blacks mostly vote for Obama," it has never been put in such contrast for me until today.

Does anyone ever think about those classifications and how that insults the intelligence of all people of color? How even in our 2008 enthusiasm for the first black president, we still are classifying his wife and daughters as "the black vote?" Michelle Obama has become representative of the unpatriotic black woman (thanks for not apoligizing, girl) and Bill Richardson has become the example of what Latinos will do. Don't you find that sad? I do. It's sad that we as people of color can't think for ourselves and only flock to folks that look like us.

I can't deny that part of Obama's appeal to me is that my niece and nephew, at their young age, won't grow up thinking that people of color can't be in power the way I did. It is also refreshing that since they are also half white, it becomes more normal for them to have parents that aren't the same color. It is also refreshing to know that all children of any race won't assume that every powerful person is white. But that is not the only reason for me or any other black person to vote for him.

Next time you are eager to comment on what one group will do, remember we are as diverse in our interests as white people. Blacks vote in blocks as democrats (25% of the base), not just drones who see color only. Some of us even vote (eek) republican. There is no dismissing the racial voting block for Obama and the female block for Clinton, but assume positively that we are doing that because we've rubbed some brain cells together and made those decisions thoughtfully. Let's challenge those singular thoughts here, at Blue Oregon. We can be the first who make considerations outside of the stereotypical racial block.

  • avwrobel (unverified)

    By focusing on how to ignore race, we keep the focus on it, and Obama has avoided scrutiny. Oregon, learn about him before its too late? Ever wonder why Hillary beat him by 13% in Mass. despite that state's leadership lined up against her? Go to and read Patrick - Obama. Also, Obamatruth is worth a look.

  • Don Beal (unverified)

    Great post. Ya know what? Every time Michelle Obama comes on my teevee I call my wife in to listen to her. She is the most genuine person I have ever seen in public life. Totally charming. She will remake what the "insiders" think is "their turf". They will be after her but she is just too damn powerful for them. Great Lady!

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
    (Show?) moms, NASCAR dads, lunch pail workers, security moms, latte drinkers, college educated and Volvo drivers. All of this is code for white people. The rest of us just get racial distinctions; black, Asian, Latino and occasionally, Native American.

    Thank you thank you thank you. So accurate. White people like me are pigeonholed by educational level, or occupation, say, but non-whites get pigeonholed by skin color. I would like to think that the Obama campaign is not resorting to this sort of crude scheme; gawd knows this is how Hillary Clinton's campaign views people. And what they care about is assembling enough niche groups into that 50% + 1 majority, and screw the rest. And the punditocracy does the same damn thing. "Working class whites" versus "blacks". What--they think blacks can't also be working class? Or is it that they're just assuming that melanin level is destiny?

  • Harry (unverified)

    Good thoughtful post.

    Why do blacks in some states vote 90% for Obama. 90%? Nobody or no-thing or no-ANYTHING gets 90% of any group. What is up with that? Especially against the wife of the first 'black president', where blacks went for Clinton massively back in the day.

    <h2>"Some of us even vote (eek) republican. "</h2>

    Bold statement, especially here. What about Bill Cosby? Does he speak truth to his people? What about Colin Powell, is he a traitor to 'his' people? Yes, Condi is not black because she believes what many white people believe, right? Don't all blacks believe (or should believe) what Jesse and Al Sharpton tell them to believe?

    Maybe some blacks think for themselves, at their own peril.

  • (Show?)

    So totally.

    I'm a soccer mom, white, raised by a rural and working class family, avid feminist, Catholic and...WTF? I'm voting for Obama? Well, yes I am.

  • Jesse Beason (unverified)

    I'm not sure what Harry is talking about, but you are right on, Karol.

  • i am not a drone (unverified)

    Great post! It really fries me when I hear about all the women voting for Hillary JUST BECAUSE they are women and the blacks voting for Obama ONLY BECAUSE he is black... as if they haven't a brain in their head to make any kind of rational decision... We don't all fit into these little boxes!

  • (Show?)

    "Working class whites" versus "blacks". What--they think blacks can't also be working class?

    BINGO. Thanks Joel, for this comment - and thanks Karol for a great post!

    Watching CNN today, I saw Katrina vanden Heuvel from The Nation say exactly that (paraphrasing): "Obama's getting plenty of working people. Many of his black voters are working class. Can we talk about them?"

    And then conversation moved on to something else.

    What I can't figure out is why they're short-handing it. Do they assume that all black people are working class (so it's redundant)? Do they assume black people don't work (so there aren't any)? Or are there just too few black people to separate them by economic class?

    Or are they just lazy, stupid, cable-tv bobbleheads who haven't even thought of the question, much less the answer?


  • backbeat (unverified)

    Karol, thank you so very much for your post.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    I think some of this labeling--the NASCAR dad or security mom kind of labeling--is a product of political and/or marketing consultants who want their clients to think they are hip to the latest trends. They dice up the market, or electorate, and then give each segment a clever name. Mark Penn built his whole career on this--and see what that did for Hillary?

    I got caught up in this back in the 80s when Stanford Research Institute came out with VALS (for 'values and lifestyles") as a way to replace boring demographics for market segmentation (I was in the natural foods biz at the time, a decidedly niche market). Man, that psychographic stuff was way cool. Now, after analyzing it for several years, I think it's mostly nonsense.

    The fact is, no one fits perfectly into any of these niches and most people fit into several. Yeah, some of these labels are thinly-disguised racial codes, but mostly, they are invented by people who want to impress their clients.

  • backbeat (unverified)

    got caught up in this back in the 80s when Stanford Research Institute came out with VALS (for 'values and lifestyles") as a way to replace boring demographics for market segmentation

    oh this brings back memories. Was it like 36 categories including "Leave it to Beaver", "Main Street USA" and of course, "Yuppies"?

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Yeah, some of these labels are thinly-disguised racial codes

    EXTREMELY thinly disguised.

    Everyone's personal identity is sort of like an onion--lots of interesting layers are exposed as one looks deeper. The pigeonholing is bulllshit. Whether it's marketing bullshit or some other sort....I don't really care.

    The GOP playbook is to appeal to people's resentments. THAT'S what gets them voting against their purely economic self-interest. Those resentments are what get framed in terms of latte drinkers, Prius drivers, yadda yadda yadda. Some of those resentments get framed in a racial sense (Jesse Helm's digusting advertisement about the white man "losing" a job to someone less qualified for...well, we know the "reason").

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    We are slowly approaching the day when political alignments will cut across race, ethnicity, religion. A key reason why I support Obama is that he is a 21st century human being. He embodies this new reality of transcending the old identities. He embodies in himself this transcendence, as a biracial person, with mixed ethnicity, African, Euro-American, and has connections across the globe. He is a son of Ireland, Kansas, and Africa.

    He had a mother who was an internationalist, who brought the texts of the world's great religions and wisdom traditions into the home. She is a woman who did her work in adult life, a student of anthropology and international studies, and she workd in organizations dedicated to microfinancing of third world enterprise.

    Obama has built his political career on cutting across boundaries. He has excited the imagination of the world beyond the U.S. and therefore has enormous potential to not only change the image of the U.S. but to be a voice of peace and reconciliation across the first and third world, across racial and religious boundaries. Those who are invested in the divisions of class, race,ideology, and religion find him a threat, and that's why there is this push-back to derail his candidacy. And it's also the reason why the young flock to his candidacy. They sense rightly someone who speaks to their experience of a world view beyond the former divisions. I might add, it's why someone like Andrew Sullivan, a political writer who is gay and a conservative supports Obama passionately.

  • Ms Mel Harmon (unverified)

    Terrific post---thank you so much. You've said what I've been trying to articulate lately but much more clearly (hope you don't mind if I quote you in conversations). According to all demographics, I should be a Hillary supporter...I'm middle-aged, female, raised blue-collar. Just the female piece gets me tagged as an "obvious Hillary supporter". I've had so many women accuse me of "selling out the sisterhood" or "not being a true feminist" because I support Obama. Hello!? One of the points of the feminist revolution was so that women could speak their minds clearly and stand up for whatever and whomever they choose. Okay, I digress. But great post, really!

  • (Show?)

    I also agree that it's a great post, Karol. And to add to what others are saying, it's also false to look at voters in Dem primaries and believe that they're voting against a candidate. If Hillary were to have won the nomination, she would have found the support of 90% of blacks. But all of a sudden that wouldn't be a race-based vote. Working-class whites (can we please lose the "downscale") will also support Obama in large numbers.

  • Jeff Alworth (unverified)

    88% of blacks voted Kerry--aaaaiieeee, what does it mean??!

  • (Show?)

    I think Gil Johnson nailed it. As a consultant, you have to demonstrate some comfort and familiarity with the impossible task of dividing up the voting public, in order to make predictions, and determine where to expend resources most strategically.

    I guess I don't have a huge problem with that part, as long as the consultants aren't under the illusion that their simplifications are some kind of proxy for "truth." I suspect they are, by and large, aware of the shortcomings of what they do.

    But the idiocy seems to come from news reporting organizations, who latch onto this stuff because it's easy and lends itself to sensationalized stories. Using these kind of divisions as the basis for reporting saves a lot of work, and produces a lot of garbage on the teevee.

  • (Show?)

    Putting us into categories is the easiest (and long-time effective) way of fooling us into believing that we are all opposed to each other and that we don't have common interests that are very much not being represented by the powers-that-be. It keeps us focused on the false premise that we are competing against each other and therefore have no reason to work with, or support each other.

  • (Show?)

    My problem with these assumptions, Pete, is that people of color (and gays by the way) do have any distinctions. I don't care what you have to do, but include people of color in your generalizations. I won't accept that that is the way it has to be because that is the way it's always done. That's laziness.

  • genop (unverified)

    Without demographic pigeonholing what would predictive theory pundits have to talk and talk and talk about? Chaos? I heard a pundit on one of the big three cable news channels, following early returns in N.C., remark with great conviction how effective the Wright expose was to derailing the Obama N.C. campaign. This was based on exit polling prior to early returns and his eventual double digit victory. Oops.
    The personalities of the candidates, their ideas, how they respond to pressure, and their countenance in the face of adversity have no gender, race, locale or party affiliation. Our media impose those divisions on public perception. Wouldn't it have been far more interesting to air true life voter response to the debates and speeches of the candidates on issues?
    Then a male, white, middle aged, middle class, college educated voter from Oregon might have learned what concerns he has in common with a female, black, elderly, disabled voter from Georgia. Instead we see interview after interview with pundits pigeonholing and predicting. It's funny how reality programming is all the rage except when it comes to real life decision making.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Putting us into categories is the easiest (and long-time effective) way of fooling us into believing that we are all opposed to each other and that we don't have common interests

    To be a little provocative. . . I think the Democratic party (yes, my party) bears a lot of the blame for the classification of groups by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and the belief that each group has separate and distinct interests.

    Not long ago, you were either part of the white, married, Protestant majority, or you were an "other". We fortunately moved away from that in the 1960s and 1970s, but the Democratic party took it to the opposite extreme by legitimizing the idea of "identity politics", that each group is separate and distinct and must have separate and distinct representation in order for that representation to be legitimate. That led us down this road where candidates are required to appeal to distinct groups of voters. And it's been expanded beyond the "traditional" categories of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation to include things like soccer moms and NASCAR dads.

    The problem with identity politics is that it fractures our civic structure and keeps us focused on our differences instead of our commonalities. And it ignores the fact that what's important isn't the group that a politician belongs to, but the beliefs that politician has. It's quite possible for a straight, married politician to do more for gay rights than a gay politician will. It's quite possible for a male politician to be more of a feminist than a female politician. And it's quite possible that a wealthy bi-racial president will do more to help the "white, working-class" than a wealthy, white female president.

    Our party would be better off if we moved away from the idea that every group is different and instead focused on how much we all have in common. That doesn't mean we should ignore racial discrimination, or gender inequality, or gay rights. It just means that we need to see the connection between all those things.

  • (Show?)

    Karol, I'm guilty of making a quick post on a complex subject. I thoroughly agree with you.

    I'd break it down more or less like this: a political consultant's primary concern, and contract, is serving his/her candidate. We don't have the greatest window into how they go about that, in general; but I'd judge that performance primarily on how effective they are. But it's hard to imagine that sloppy categorizations (like "the black vote") are very effective.

    A news organization's primary concern, however, is informing the public. They have a lot of judgment calls to make in doing that, because it's not always clear what the public wants, and different orgs target different markets. Making the choice, over and over, to feature consultants and pundits who perpetuate useless divisions, is obviously damaging and fails to truly inform the electorate. That's where my biggest concern lies, because that's where it's so obvious we have a problem.

    As long as we're talking about divisions, it's my firm belief that the media's adherence to artificial/overly simplistic labels like "liberal," "conservative," and even "Democratic" or "Republican" in many contexts, does our country a great disservice. Such labels are routinely used by the powerful to retain and consolidate their power. Just look at how readily big interests shift their contributions from one party to the other.

  • (Show?)

    Just to be thorough..I do think there are ways to talk about "the black vote," "the young vote," "the working class vote" etc. that are useful, and that do not imply that all members of the named category think alike. I don't think it's always "bad" to use classifications like that. But I do think they're overused, and oversimplified in far too many cases.

  • (Show?)

    Kari, sure, blacks can also be working class.

    But the voting patterns are pretty stark: working class / white = mainly Hillary supporters. Any class / black = overwhelmingly Obama supporters.

    It doesn't matter how many differences you say there are in the Black community; politically, Blacks are almost uniformly Democrat. I don't find anything particularly demeaning about noting that millions of African Americans are voting for a person of color in celebration of their heritage. The only time we'll really find out if race trumps ideology is when we have a prominent Black Republican candidate.

    Last comment and I'll stop: just because you don't fit a category doesn't mean the category doesn't apply. These are generalizations and patterns, they aren't meant to apply to any individual, any more than a pair of dice will always turn up 7 (even though, in the long run, the average roll will be 7).

  • (Show?)

    Karol, your post among other things illustrate how dynamic all of this stuff is. Always has been potentially protean -- that's why the slave masters and the Jim Crow politicians (and their West Coast equivalents in dealing with Chinese and Mexican and Filipino immigrants) were so anxious to try to nail it down with the law.

    Something to remember about "the black vote" is that up until quite late -- after Iowa -- large majorities of black Democrats in southern states particularly polled pro-Clinton, because they didn't trust white Americans to vote in sufficient numbers for a black man. After the shift started, the Clinton folks IMO miscalculated their response, and "the First (white) Black President" in particular showed colors that went beyond picking out Sistah Souljah to triangulate on. If they'd handled it differently I think Clinton might have ended up with more black support.

    Miles, Democrats didn't invent identity politics, certainly not all by themselves, and insofar as they did, it goes back at least to the beginnings of large scale Catholic immigration in the 1840s (largely Irish but esp. after 1848 subtantially German too). When I was a T.A. for U.S. political history in grad school my liberal Democrat primary instructor made a big point in his lectures about his support for the view that ethnicity, not class, was the primary determinant of U.S. electoral politics -- this theory also was advanced by many social scientists all through the 20th century. It was called "pluralist theory." The black vote wasn't as big then, because of Jim Crow, but you'd find the breakdowns, Jews voted D, Catholics too but a bit less so, because while the Irish voted D the Italians had to go with R machines in places like NY & Boston because the Irish had the Ds sewn up -- places like PA or Chicago with very complicated E. & S. European immigrant mosaics would be locally or in-state predictable to a degree, but not necessarily in different states, or sometimes even cities.

    Now some of "pluralist theory" was exaggerated out of ideological anti-marxism & political anti-Communism, but there were reasons for the patterns observed, which had to do with common interests, and the bases of social and political trust. And that still applies today.

    What more recent Democratic "identity politics" has done is three things. First, which is good and powerful and the reason why it has persisted, is it recognized that social divisions and inequalities and yes oppressions have produced different interests that need to be addressed in different ways in policy to achieve common goals of equity. Second, which is more ambiguous, is recognition that people speak best for their own interests. The good side of that is opening things up to people who were excluded. The bad side is the potential for internal bullying over who "really" speaks for some category, and the attendant problem of white-controlled media anointing "the" spokesperson for some group. (The political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. has written considerably on this phenomenon). And thirdly, as has been observed here, ethno-racial identity politics don't mesh easily with other categories of identity, including class, but also gender and religion, that do or may cut across ethnic identity lines.

    But we need to be careful, because some forms of criticism of "identity politics" boil down to arguments that people who fit historically marginalized categories should shut up and not assert their own interests if & when they are distinctive. I'm not saying you're saying that -- but you should be aware that you may be heard as saying that in some contexts, because there are people who are saying that.

  • Miles (unverified)

    I agree with your characterization of the three things that Democratic identity politics have done. However, I would add to this:

    Second, which is more ambiguous, is recognition that people speak best for their own interests.

    While overall this is a good recognition, it has also resulted in some Democrats believing that the ONLY way someone's interests get taken into account is by having one of their own in power. When looking at the polity as a whole, some semblance of proportional representation is important. But looking at individual offices, it's not. To be in the right place on civil rights, for instance, a politician does not have to be a member of an oppressed class. Similarly, being a member of an oppressed class does not mean that a politician is in the right place on civil rights, either.

    I also think the Democratic party's focus on race and gender, instead of policy positions, reinforces the stereotype that only those who look like us will adequately represent us. In all the discussion about Clinton's appeal to white, working class voters, how much discussion was there about why? What did she have in her platform that was different from Obama that appealed to those voters? The answer is, not much.

  • (Show?)

    Miles, I pretty much agree with you, with the partial exception that I think the Democratic politics in question have to be looked at in the context of Republican post-Civil-Rights laws racialization of politics, and also in the context of specific histories of specific places.

    You remember the debates over drawing district boundaries in southern states, with the tension between black majority districts in which black candidates could get elected, and black plurality districts in which more white Democrats could get elected but it was much harder for black candidates? I think it's an interesting and not simple example of a very real tension. I feel as if your point of view might come down harder on the side of the "fewer black reps / more Democratic reps" view in that debate than I would be comfortable with. But maybe I'm wrong & I really don't want to project anything onto you. And that's not to say I'm comfortable with the other side either.

    Rather, it's a discomfort I want to struggle with, and don't think there's a simple answer to. It seems quite possible that you'd agree.

    As always I appreciate the food for thought.

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