By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 11, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ As Barack Obama ponders a running mate, no choice would be as bracing and daring as Virginia Sen. Jim Webb _ not least because of his views on race.
Webb is a gifted writer and intellectual pugilist, a self-styled tribune of redneck (he uses the term) resentment. With the 2004 publication of his book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” he became a one-man anti-defamation squad for the descendants, in blood and culture, of the white settlers of Appalachia and the South. He is a fierce critic of America‘s growing economic inequality, who two years ago switched parties to win his Senate seat.
He is also, of late, a man who believes Obama has the potential to heal the historic rift between the Scots-Irish and African-Americans _ Webb calls them “tortured siblings” _ and “remake American politics.”
Think Barack Delano Obama.
In his bid to become America‘s first black president, the Illinois senator has struggled, with mixed success, to mute racial controversy. For better or worse, choosing Webb might take the national conversation on race to places it’s never been before _ into the heart of whiteness.
It’s a tough call. Any race talk can roil the waters, and Webb’s writings are a gale of provocative ideas. Yet there is something buddy-movie tantalizing about the man from the “Audacity of Hope” teaming up with this equally audacious great white hope.
It could be heard in the chants of “VP, VP,” at a massive rally in Virginia June 5, where Webb stood by Obama’s side. “If you’re in a fight _ and we’re going to be in a fight _ you want Jim Webb to have your back,” Obama declared.
Ever since the 1960s civil rights movement, the national Democratic Party has occupied what it sees as the moral high ground on race, even if that sometimes more resembles an electoral flood plain. But along the way, as Webb described it in “Born Fighting,” the nation’s liberal elite and “cultural Marxists” vilified poor and working-class white Southerners as racist, effectively forging what has become the bedrock of Red State America.
Race trumped class as the dividing line. All whites _ no matter their history, culture or station _ became “haves” by virtue of skin color. And yet, Webb wrote of those he saw as his struggling kin, “If these were the people who took something away from black America, where did they hide it _ inside their corn-shuck mattresses?”
This is tendentious history. “Webb comes across as an apologist for the legacy of racism in the South,” Michael Newton, a Celtic scholar from North Carolina, wrote in a scathing review of “Born Fighting” that he entitled “Born Frothing.”
But in Webb’s view the unfairness reached its zenith with affirmative action, which quickly grew to cover women, Latinos and Asians _ everyone who wasn’t a white male. Never mind that, as Webb points out, the heavily Scots-Irish white Baptists shared more in terms of education and income with blacks than with higher-flying Jews, Chinese or, for that matter, most other whites.
In 2000, Webb described affirmative action as a “permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.” But in the course of his Senate run, his thinking evolved. He now argues it was justifiable as long as it just applied to blacks, but insufferable when it was expanded to include everyone but whites.
His solution: Either limit it to blacks, for whom it was originally intended _ a political non-starter _ or extend it to poor whites.
Obama, noting that “My daughters should be treated by any admission office as folks who are pretty advantaged,” has indicated both race and class might properly figure in affirmative action decisions. And there are those who think Obama should seize the opportunity to move affirmative action more declaratively from race to class as a way of signaling his independence from Democratic dogma.
“It would be completely consistent with his theme to bring the country together and get beyond the old divisions and what he referred to in his race speech as the `racial stalemate,”’ said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and leading advocate of switching to class-based affirmative action.
For Kahlenberg, an Obama/Webb ticket would be a bold step in that direction: “You have someone who is so clearly identified with the very voters whom Obama is weakest with.”
Obama’s crushing defeats in West Virginia and Kentucky toward the end of the primary season coincided with Webb’s TV and radio blitz for his new book, “A Time to Fight.” In one appearance after another, Webb returned to “Born Fighting” to argue that Appalachia’s rejection of Obama was neither racist nor irredeemable.
“When I hear people say it’s racism, my back gets up because this is my cultural group,” he said May 21 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This isn’t Selma 1965.”
He elaborated later that day, on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” “They’re not staying away from Barack because of his race, but they have an antipathy toward the Democratic Party’s movement since the ’70s toward interest group politics. He’s spoken on this issue, I think, quite well. He just needs to get out there and get to know these people.”
“Walk across Kentucky and West Virginia,” Harold Ford Jr. recommended in Newsweek. The former Tennessee congressman, who in 2006 narrowly lost a campaign to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, now heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
But Ron Walters, an expert on black politics at the University of Maryland, thinks choosing Webb, or focusing too much energy on Appalachia, would be misguided.
Walters believes Obama will win big because of a massive increase in voter participation by those drawn to his cause. In an open letter to the Illinois senator, he warned against warping the agenda of change in pursuit of the white working class. “Such a strategy is disrespectful of Blacks by suggesting that they would stand still while Obama pursues conservative interests to their detriment,” Walters wrote.
Still, to Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, author of “Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites,” Appalachia is too big to ignore. It stretches from western Pennsylvania to northern Alabama and Mississippi, and includes quite a few transplants in crucial states like Ohio.
And it’s ripe. “Rural Appalachia is primed for a rebellion against the Republican Party,” Flynt said. Folks there are the ones suffering the greatest casualties in Iraq, the ones struggling to fill the gas tank for the long drive to subsistence jobs.
Yet Webb’s appeal among “his people” is uncertain. It was the Democratic strongholds in Northern Virginia that carried him to victory over Sen. George Allen in 2006, not the Appalachian counties in the state’s southwest.
As Eve Fairbanks observed recently in the New Republic, there may be an element of liberal wish-fulfillment in the way some Democrats look at Webb.
“His emotional journey is the same one liberals want lower-class whites to undergo en masse,” she wrote, concluding that Webb and Obama “appeal to the same voters, wine-track Democrats who come out in unprecedented droves to vote for a black man or hillbilly white because they want the party to be bigger than