WASHINGTON—An obituary of the anti-busing rabble-rouser Louise Day Hicks has sat in my in-basket for weeks. I stumbled upon it while researching the Boston school-busing crisis of the 1960s and early ‘70s, an ugly and embarrassing era in my beloved hometown.
I looked back at the busing crisis the first time Barack Obama delivered a sociology lecture—that is, the speech in Philadelphia on March 18 in which he sought to explain why he embraced as a spiritual mentor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and why it was so crucial for the rest of America to understand that the root cause of Wright’s hateful rants was his reaction to racism. The candidate was clear in his speech that the reason so many who aren’t African-American were “surprised” by the content of Wright’s sermons was that “the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.” Basically, Obama was telling whites they must understand and accept the underlying sentiment that compelled Wright to blame the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on America itself, and to call the United States the “U.S. of KKK-A.”
The speech was an adept effort at damage control by a politician in trouble and it seems to have worked. Nonetheless, five seemingly insignificant words in it struck me: “As far as they’re concerned.” This is how Obama prefaced his remarks about whites of immigrant stock whose experience is that, “as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything” and they’ve grasped whatever success they’ve achieved on their own.
It is an awkward qualifier, suggesting that this is a perspective or a belief, and not necessarily the truth. My immigrant grandparents, though, found truth in the pre-dawn cold when they left each day for their jobs at a shoe factory. I saw truth in my father’s frosted whiskers and soaked flannel shirts when he arrived home after a night of plowing snow.
Now Obama has given another sociology lesson. The subject is how working-class Americans living in small towns are bitter about their economic stress, and so they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The professor has tried to talk his way out of this jam in part by pointing out that clinging to religious faith is a good thing.
But what of those he says cling to “antipathy to people who aren’t like them”? The word for such people is racist, and Obama knows it.
His campaign has used the term vigorously since he lost the New Hampshire primary, when surrogates took to the airwaves to declare that the “Bradley effect”—a phenomenon in which whites tell pollsters they are voting for the black candidate, then pull the lever for a white—might have been at work in Hillary Clinton’s surprise victory. Never mind that Obama got the share of the New Hampshire vote that pre-election polls had predicted; those who said they were voting for Obama apparently did so.
Is it possible that white, working-class voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere find Clinton’s meat-and-potatoes style more appealing than Obama’s highbrow rhetoric? That “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”—one of Obama’s more baffling lines—doesn’t inspire those who usually ask, “What have you done for me lately?” And what of the voters who supported John Edwards? Are they unrepentant racists, too?
This is what triggers memories of busing and Louise Day Hicks. The zeitgeist of this Democratic primary campaign has evoked the time when Boston was a tinderbox and those blamed for setting it on edge were the ignorant, white, working-class racists of South Boston. Aligned against them were upscale white liberals and African-Americans. In other words, the configuration of that political moment mirrors the breakdown of voting in the Democratic primaries between Clinton, with her blue-collar base, and Obama, with his upscale white and African-American support.
Were the people of Southie racist? Indeed, many were—violently so. But they were not only angry about busing. They raged at the way privileged whites—the judges and the Harvard professors and the liberals who watched the rancor on television from the comfort of their suburban living rooms, looked down their snooty noses at them. Hicks, the matriarch of the anti-busing movement, capitalized on this resentment as much as she capitalized on racism.
Obama is yet another professor who has analyzed the “bitter” white working class. Still, he wants their votes to elect him president. Seems to me he’s unlikely to get them.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group