White Flight… In Heels

Stories about Obama's "white male problem" only present half the story

Predicting the election outcome from August polls is not much more accurate than reading tea leaves. As the presidential race stagnates in the shadow of the Olympics, pundits are raking increasingly soggy indicators. Today, the much-hashed discussion about Obama’s problems with white voters is rehashed again, in papers including the London Daily Telegraph and The Washington Post.

Boston Globe contributor David Paul Kuhn asks whether white men pose a particular problem for the Illinois senator. He rightly points out that Obama’s problem with this demographic is not unique to him. “Not since 1976, when Democrats last achieved a majority, has a Democrat won more than 38 of every 100 white, male voters,” he writes.

This is a useful historical fact anchoring much less grounded speculation about how race will affect the November election. But Kuhn then messes up his own historical account, missing the important link between race and gender—or, more accurately, the white backlash and the backlash against feminism—in driving white men into the Republican Party.

Kuhn takes issue with those who say that white resistance to civil rights legislation explains Democrats’ underperformance with white men. “Many Democrats explain their failures in a respect that reaffirms their self image; the good fight for black equality caused a racially motivated ‘Southern flip,’” he writes. “In the Deep South, that was true. But nationally, political white flight occurred in the South and the North. It also reached its crescendo with Ronald Reagan’s election—not during the peak of civil rights debates.”

OK, let’s review the history. First, although the civil rights backlash began in the South, it rapidly spread to the North. Chicago, Detroit, and Boston were all epicenters of some of the most pitched battles over housing and school integration, which became increasingly bitter under court-imposed busing. Middle-class whites, many of them union members and Catholics, watched as their hard-earned economic gains eroded in the economic downturn of the 1970s, while African-Americans enjoyed upward mobility thanks to government intervention against discrimination. Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace made three shockingly successful presidential bids between 1964 and 1972 thanks to these voters, running strong in states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Nixon and Reagan’s opposition to busing and affirmative action—with a healthy helping of racially coded “law and order” rhetoric—brought many of the voters that Wallace pried loose from the Democrats into the Republican Party.

The racial tensions of the 1970s and ‘80s were accompanied by the equally important, but less often remembered, backlash against feminism. The most important item on the feminist agenda—passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) barring sex discrimination—was passed almost unanimously in both houses of Congress and was endorsed by Republicans including Richard Nixon, Strom Thurmond, and Gerald Ford. It was rapidly ratified by the states—within a year of its passage, only eight more states needed to adopt the ERA in order to amend the Constitution.

The feminist juggernaut foundered in North Carolina, thanks to the grassroots activist Phyllis Schlafly and segregationist senator Jesse Helms. Conservative women mobilized in opposition to the ERA, casting doubt on whether feminist organizations actually spoke for American women. According to Marjorie Spruill, a University of South Carolina history professor writing a book on the feminist backlash of the 1970s, Helms helped Schlafly turn growing anti-feminist sentiments into a lasting movement in 1977, when he held Senate hearings legitimating her allies who dissented from the feminist movment. These forces helped put ERA opponent Ronald Reagan in office, and the amendment expired during his administration without winning the necessary ratification.

Integration and feminism both represented massive changes in America’s social life, and they were linked in popular debate with many other social problems of the ‘70s and ‘80s—rising crime rates, the collapse of American cities, unrest on college campuses, open homosexuality, the deindustrialization of Northern manufacturing centers that hurt middle and working class men. Anti-feminism came along at a moment when overt racism was becoming politically unacceptable, and conservative women gave political cover to politicians who wanted to denounce liberal feminists. Historian Spruill explains that resistance to civil rights legislation and feminist legislation are united by a belief in “innate differences” and “hierarchy.”

Discomfort with the Democratic Party, which embraced both civil rights and feminism, lingers. That is why, as Kuhn correctly notes, Obama may face many of the same problems with white men that have plagued previous Democratic nominees.

Thanks to Obama’s race and unusual background, he enters this dynamic with extra baggage. It is interesting to speculate whether other nominees would be doing better with white men. Despite her stronger performance amongst white Democratic primary voters, it seems hard to imagine that Hillary Clinton would be more popular among this demographic. John Edwards (sans scandal) might be, though Bill Clinton had plenty of difficulty with the group once known as “angry white men.”

Much has been made of the Democratic plank acknowledging sexism in the primary, which is theoretically designed to heal internal wounds. But if Obama faces a challenge in confronting his party’s racial legacy with white male voters, he also must manage his party’s feminist legacy. And, if their prognostications are to be taken seriously, commentators have to understand the historical significance of both.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.