IT’S MORE THAN DEMOGRAPHICS…
by Jennifer Harvey
You’ve probably heard a lot about “non-white” turnout post-election. Or that shifting “demographics” decided the presidential election. The more crass version of this refrain, spoken aloud by Bill O’Reilly, laments that the “white establishment voter” is now a “minority.”
Yes, communities of color supported President Obama by huge margins. But, let’s avoid easy conclusions about what this really means—and what it doesn’t.
First, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that people of color have some sort of natural affiliation with our President because his skin tone is of a darker hue. It most certainly does not mean that U.S.-Americans of color uncritically support Obama because he’s Black (just ask Herman Cain how far this goes).
The charge that demographic shifts sufficiently explain Obama’s victory is a close cousin to the exclamatory pronouncement that soon whites will be a minority in the United States. Our public obsessions with this hypothesis are usually accompanied by the thinly veiled idea that white people should be really freaked out by this for some reason.
Worse is the deeper logic at play. If non-white support for Obama is somehow natural, then so is white opposition to him. (And, if this is the case, we may as well pack up all our visions of a vibrant pluralist democracy and go home.)
Yes, race represents real difference in the U.S. But that’s not because race makes us innately different from one another. It’s because the experiences we have in society are dramatically impacted by our race. And, as we recognize in other areas of life, experience can lead to deeply valuable knowledge and expertise.
I often ask my students who should sit on a committee responsible for designing a schedule for final exams week. They always insist it should include students. Now, as a professor I’d love to have exams over in 48 hours. Let’s get it done, pack up, and call it a semester! But my students, who will actually be graded on finals, would never design the system this way. In fact, because they’re most directly affected by it, students know more—literally—about what makes good final exam policy than I do.
In social ethics, we call this the “epistemological privilege of the oppressed.” This just means that people who have the least decision-making power on an issue—but are most affected by it—usually have the most complete understanding of it. Ask a heterosexual person how many federal benefits are awarded to married couples. They’ll probably have no idea. But, a gay or lesbian person is likely to rattle off the number quickly: 1,049. This ability isn’t natural. It doesn’t mean gay and lesbian people come out of the womb with this knowledge—or that we all want to get married! This is knowledge that comes through experience. Being denied access to a powerful civic institution often results in gays and lesbians knowing more about what good marriage policy looks like. (This does not mean heterosexual people are off the hook for learning this).
Instead of reducing Obama’s victory to a mathematical calculation about racial numbers, what if we assumed people of color have knowledge and expertise (born of experience) that we all urgently need, knowledge so powerful that it decided a presidential election? Of course, people of color don’t all know and believe the exact same thing. But what I’m proposing here is that we need to explore the meaning of the racial divide in a different way.
Those who’ve been simultaneously most consistently left out of political decision-making and most negatively affected by an array of U.S. laws, policies and practices sent a message last week. And this is the message: the current administration is striving to implement policies that create a better society for us all.
Republicans are missing the point when they frame the question as, “How can we convince these ‘new demographic groups’ to support the Republican party?” Republicans might instead take seriously that people of color have a well-spring of knowledge about what makes a good society. And Republicans would do well to allow this knowledge to help form their next steps. (By the way, I’m not saying that Democrats or the left hold a corner on this knowledge; just that people of color have clearly demonstrated that at the present time the Republicans are farther from it.)
There are probably many non-racial reasons whites might give for not supporting Obama. But the stark racial divide in the vote means we must take seriously something racial is going on. If racial experience affects knowledge, then it’s safe to assume—given the hard statistical data showing that even in our current economic crisis whites, as a group, are doing better than other groups—white people understandably have some things to learn. Happily (and none of us should take this for granted), our fellow citizens of color keep showing up with a willingness to share their knowledge over and over again. Happily, a shifting demographic may make it more difficult for those of us who are white to ignore them. And, happily, this knowledge is something that stands to make the United States of America a better place for all of us.
Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.