“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money!”
Privilege has been called an invisible knapsack, a bundle of advantages enjoyed by beneficiaries who rarely recognize it as such. White folks, rich folks, men, we all carry around some sort invisible knapsack. And not only do we enjoy the advantages it confers, we generally take them for granted. We usually think of ourselves as unadvantaged--neither advantaged or disadvantaged–but advantage is a two-sided coin: there is no advantage without a corresponding disadvantage. Accumulate enough advantages, and you have privilege. And like many white people, and a lot of Republicans, Scott Brown has never acknowledged his own privilege.
As the handsome son of a white, middle-class, albeit dysfunctional, family, Brown had loads of advantages: he went to good public schools; his father was a long-time city councilor in Newburyport; he had extended family to care for him; after he was arrested for shoplifting, a sympathetic judge taught him a lesson rather than making him part of the system; he went to college and law school; his sister’s job at Cosmopolitan opened up a successful modeling career for him; he served in the National Guard for 20 years, but never saw combat. Yeah, he had some hard knocks–having come from a broken home and having been sexually abused–but he’s hardly alone in these regards. Scott Brown is a child of white, middle-class privilege.
Brown has done his best to play up his disadvantages while fabricating advantages for his opponent. When he first raised questions about Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee heritage, it was just another example of GOP mudslinging, albeit racially tinted. The hope was that something would stick. When it didn’t, Brown tried to play the affirmative action card–racism’s first cousin once removed–accusing Warren of having benefited from her American Indian heritage. The accusation was crap, but affirmative action still bothers many white people who fear losing their privilege. Conservatives like to believe that underprivileged people are actually the privileged ones. It’s not just Scott Brown. George Will recently suggested that Obama still had electoral support because people didn’t want to give up on the first black American president. John Sununu claimed Colin Powell supported Obama because they were both black. And Mitt Romney, the poster-child of the privileged class, said he’d have a better shot at winning the election if his father were actually a Mexican.
Part of the obsession with the privilege of the disadvantaged is due to the growing non-white American population. White people have always feared losing their privilege, particularly in former slave states, but whites across the country have always used people of color as a source of bad examples. In times such as ours, many people are looking for scapegoats. Undocumented immigrants, African Americans, they’re easy targets. It’s hasn’t exactly been in the headlines, but the Grand Old Party has become the Grand Old White Party. Eighty-nine percent of people who identify themselves as Republicans, according to a 2009 Gallup poll are white. They are also increasingly old, increasingly male, and not all that well-educated. It’s not all that surprising that the GOP and its candidates have in Joan Walsh’s words, “doubled down” on whiteness..
Still, you have to wonder how long the GOP can to keep it up. There are plenty of white people to populate the party, but as time goes on, they will be less relevant. People of color, who lean strongly Democratic, are already the majority in California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas. The majority of the babies born in the United States are now Hispanic, black, or Asian American. It won’t be until 2042 that whites become the minority in America, but the minority vote is already having electoral repercussions. President Obama requires less and less of the white vote. As Ron Brownstein writes,
For President Obama, the winning formula can be reduced to 80/40. In 2008, Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority voters, including not only African-Americans but also Hispanics, Asians, and others. If Obama matches that performance this year, he can squeak out a national majority with support from about 40 percent of whites—so long as minorities at least match the 26 percent of the vote they cast last time.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, needs to get 61% of white voters. That’s a hell of a big chunk of the white vote. Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush are the only Republicans to have received between 55% and 61% of the white vote. And it’s fair to say that Romney is no Eisenhower, Reagan, or Bush for that matter. Romney seems to being doing well enough to be competitive, but electorally, he has a tough row to hoe. In four years, it’s hard to believe the GOP nominee for president will be using the same racial/racist appeals, though who knows. As the party grows older and whiter, it may have no political choice but continue to appeal to its base, but it will do so at the expense of the growing non-white population.