To some extent, Obama’s problems here stem from Clinton’s special appeal to one segment of this group, white working-class women. And Democratic candidates have been having problems with lunch-bucket whites for a long time. (Just ask John Kerry.) But there is another reason—one that many discuss delicately—why Obama is having difficulty with white working-class voters: race.
Racial attitudes have changed dramatically in the United States over the past several decades, of course, and overtly racist beliefs are much less prevalent among white Americans of all classes today. But a more subtle form of prejudice, which social scientists sometimes call symbolic racism, is still out there—especially among working-class whites.
Symbolic racism means believing that African American poverty and other problems are largely the result of lack of ambition and effort, rather than white racism and discrimination. Who holds symbolically racist beliefs? A relatively large portion of white voters in general and white working-class voters in particular, according to the 2004 American National Election Study, the best data available on this topic. A few answers underscore how widespread these attitudes are:
* Almost 60 percent of white voters agreed with the statement that “blacks should try harder to succeed.” A startling 43 percent of white college graduates nodded at this one, along with 71 percent of whites with no college education.
* Fully 49 percent of white voters disagreed with the statement that “history makes it more difficult for blacks to succeed.” Forty percent of white college graduates disagreed with it, along with 58 percent of whites with no college education.