White privilege is the bundle of unearned advantages that come with being categorized as "white" in American society. Those of us who study race and politics often have a hard time convincing white people--and some others overly identified with Whiteness--of how this dynamic impacts our society.
On Tuesday, Mitt Romney was embarrassed by Barack Obama in a debate about foreign policy. There, Romney was a child trying to engage in a fist fight against a grown man, and subsequently had his behind, almost quite literally, handed to him. Obama thrashed Mitt Romney in the prior debate as well. Thus, a puzzle and conundrum: Mitt Romney has gained support among white voters after both horrible performances.
How do we explain this trend?
President Obama has the double burden of being African-American and an incumbent. His record in office is colored by his race--and what the white public's perception of Obama's blackness means for how they assess his performance and accomplishments.
Barack Obama is hamstrung by a double standard where he is held to a far higher bar for success than a white president. For that reason, and some very significant others too, his reelection campaign is now very much imperiled.
Let me be clear: Barack Obama did poorly in the first debate against Mitt Romney. However, Obama's sub par performance was better than either of Romney's performances in the last two contests. But, Romney is gaining in the polls with voters who somehow see him as "qualified" enough to be President after losing two debates in a row against the president.
The empirical evidence has long suggested that presidential debates are unimportant for voters' decisions on election day. We have also never had a black president running for a second term. I would suggest that this upsets all of our existing models and explanations.
Obama is playing a game that folks who look like him are not supposed to be involved in. Black Americans have been defined for centuries as "anti-citizens," and had to be specifically written back into the Constitution in order to correct what was a gross birth defect at the heart of "the greatest democracy" in the world. Obama's rise to the presidency is an anomaly in the the American political tradition.
Consequently, all rules are now off and need to be rewritten as we try to conceptualize Barack Obama's run for reelection within the long arch of race and politics in American history.
The counter-factual is very telling. Consider the following scenario for a moment.
If Obama had lost the final two debates by the same degree as Romney, the polls would be even more overwhelmingly in favor of the challenger (at this point, Obama would be calling the moving trucks; Romney would be measuring the curtains). In all, the outsized advantage enjoyed by Romney is more than a twist on the advantage held by a candidate without a record, who is running a post-truth campaign where lying is the norm, and against an incumbent who is in office during hard economic times.
Historically, white privilege has meant the subsidization of white mediocrity. In this election, that standing rule has played out with white independent voters, many of who simply want the incumbent out of office, and are influenced by a concerted campaign of anti-black racism, the mining of white racial resentment, and the Republican Party's use of the Southern Strategy 2.0 to undermine the country's first black president.
For these voters, white privilege and white racism has legitimated, and thus made okay, a basic calculation. The black guy was given a shot, the White candidate is not doing too great but is good enough, and in their hearts, the "hope and change" we need is for a White candidate to once again be in charge of a White Republic as a way of returning it to normalcy. White is right. Mitt Romney is their candidate.
Centuries of American history have demonstrated how an exceptional black man will almost always lose out to a slightly above average (or even horribly untalented) white man. Black folks do not have to be ten times better to get half as far anymore. Nevertheless, we do need to be substantially better to simply get a fair shot. In presidential politics, this may be a bridge too far for Barack Obama to cross.
White privilege is the de facto standing decision rule in American life, culture, society, and politics. That Romney could win by losing is further proof of a hard truth about the permanence of the color line in post racial, post civil rights, America
Ultimately, a black man can be elected President. White privilege will not allow him to be reelected to the office. The truth hurts. Perhaps, and with two weeks from election day, all of us had best get used to that fact.