The Royal Gazette
Opinion (11 Dec. 2008)
During the post election 60 Minutes interview with Barack Obama’s top campaign advisors it was revealed that his campaign never once held a meeting to discuss race. Here in Bermuda the topic of Barack Obama and race in the Bermuda context is dominating the headlines.
The topic exploded with the Premier’s prejudicial assertion that white Bermudians wouldn’t have voted for Senator Obama.
The Premier’s claim of (white) Obama bandwagon jumpers who wouldn’t actually vote for him may just be the opening for a more introspective and insightful discussion on race and politics in Bermuda.
As a Bermudian who happens to be white, the Premier won’t find me on his bandwagon. I first linked to an Obama article on my blog in late 2004, and then began writing with increasing frequency and admiration about his appeal and lessons for Bermuda in October of 2005.
It’s clear that the Premier and others are attempting to get ahead of the conundrum of the PLP’s inability to attract white support amid anecdotal widespread white Bermudian support for Barack Obama.
The Premier’s argument is typically shallow and goes something like this: whites wouldn’t support Obama because 90% support the UBP. The inference being that white support for the UBP is indicative of racism as the PLP self-define as the black party.
But how a group votes tells you nothing about why a group votes as they do.
If it did, what would we make of overwhelming black American support for the Democratic Party? Would that also be racism at work as he suggests?
In fact, black Americans vote Democratic in the same proportions that white Bermudians vote UBP? This is even more surprising because the Republican Party was formed in opposition to the expansion of slavery, yet the modern version cannot attract minority support.
Of course there are some white Bermudians who will never vote for the PLP because they’re “the black party” just as there are some black Bermudians who will never vote for the UBP because they’re the supposedly white party.
With them out of the picture things are no longer so black and white, but still quite simple. Yet the obvious explanation is seldom discussed.
The reason white Bermudians vote overwhelmingly UBP and black Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic are probably identical: both minority groups believe that one party is at best indifferent or at worst outwardly hostile to them as a demographic.
It’s entirely understandable that black Americans vote against the party that routinely uses them as cheap props during and betweens elections as a tactic to drum up class and race resentments about crime and welfare.
It’s equally as understandable that white Bermudians won’t lend their vote to a party whose election campaigns are non-stop appeals to black group identity coupled with crude and offensive portrayals of whites as inherently and pathologically racist and UBP blacks as sell-outs.
If we are to move past racial politics we must at least concede some basic truths, such as the fact that the PLP present themselves as the black party and come across as hostile to whites. This produces a not-entirely unintentional by-product of anemic non-black support.
The PLP’s professed disillusionment about its lack of white support is either disingenuous or incredibly tone deaf if you cut through the politics.
Identity politics are designed to drive voting into racial blocks and this helps the PLP as they’re appealing to the demographic majority.
The PLP’s rather odd invitation to white voters is that the only way they can prove their lack of racism is to vote for the party that continually calls them racists. It’s not just unlikely to work, it’s politically self-serving.
The reason Bermuda’s swing voters are black is because whites have nowhere to swing to.
In Bermuda race is often confused with politics. Politics is about getting votes. Moving past racism is about understanding. Until Obama’s campaign, those things have rarely been combined successfully, although the UBP cobbled together a fragile coalition for three decades.
The PLP shout ‘racist’ as frequently as Sarah Palin called Barack Obama a terrorist. In fact, the PLP make the charge directly while Ms. Palin engaged in guilt by association and hoped for plausible deniability (well, not really, but bless her for trying).
But let’s take this further.
The Premier’s speculation about white Bermudian voting in a US context has two fatal flaws.
Firstly, white Bermudians have been voting for black candidates for decades, just not those in the PLP.
Secondly, and more importantly, it presupposes that the PLP and Senator Obama presented a similar product to the electorate, unless Dr. Brown is saying that race is the sole criteria in how you vote.
The truth is that Dr. Brown and his party’s campaigning is the antithesis of Senator Obama and his.
Obama presents himself as a candidate who happens to be multi-racial, Dr. Brown and the PLP present themselves as “the black party”.
Whereas Dr. Brown runs campaigns about “slaying the vile vicious racist dragon”, “obliterating” his opponents complete with clenched fist salutes, Senator Obama studiously avoided race as a direct issue and campaigned on bringing conservatives and liberals together to end a generation of trench warfare.
When Dr. Brown was whipping his rallies into anti-UBP frenzies Senator Obama was shutting down booing of John McCain at his.
Where Dr. Brown talked the day after the election of making whites ‘uncomfortable’ Senator Obama said in his acceptance speech “…to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”
Just on Tuesday President-Elect Obama talked about leading with humility as 46% percent of the population voted for John McCain.
Night and day.
What was so disheartening about Dr. Brown’s claim about white voting was that he evidently won’t admit, or was trying to paper over, what Senator Obama’s campaign represented.
The Obama campaign represented a generational changing of the guard as much as a racial victory; a move away from the 1960s battles that have dominated the US and Bermuda’s scene.
The reason so many Americans, and yes, white Bermudians, responded to Senator Obama’s message was that he expressed a desire to forge a broad new coalition.
In his book “The Audacity of Hope”, Senator Obama described US politics as a psychodrama “rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago”; he spoke of those who had been “fighting some of the same fights since the ‘60s”; he expressed bewilderment at constantly “re-litigating the civil rights era”.
This is the epitome of Dr. Brown’s persona and the foundation of PLP politics. PLP Chairman David Burt conceded as much in a recent opinion piece calling for the PLP to modernise.
The UBP too are not immune, but they stand to gain nothing from identity politics and racial gridlock. The UBP seem trapped as unwitting enablers – PLP foils – rather than enthusiastic practitioners. It is becoming increasingly evident that their existence is perpetuating the tired old politics that the PLP have mastered but is holding Bermuda back.
The rapid aggressive responses from the PLP to the unavoidably unfavourable comparisons with Barack Obama suggests that they are aware of the threat that his cross generational, cross racial, cross party appeal poses to the political model they are so heavily invested in.
Senator Obama might not have just de-fanged old school racial politics in the US. He might be facilitating it here in Bermuda. It’s about time.
If Dr. Brown and his PLP colleagues are truly interested in testing his hypothesis about white Bermudian voting habits, he should change his tone. Spend a few years talking about positive change, building partnerships and moving past decade old fights. Emulate Obama’s message and example of inclusion and collaboration, his temperament. Disavow divisive racial rhetoric that leads to stereotypes about how Bermudian whites would vote.
Try it. They might get my vote.