Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reading the Plains: A Close Look at the Oklahoma and Kansas Primaries

IN A NIGHT OF many surprises few were more puzzling than the shockingly different outcomes in the Democratic primaries in Oklahoma and Kansas. As I write this on Tuesday evening, my home state of Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama 54% to 31%. On the other hand, the Okies' neighbor to the North--some would say their virtual demographic twin--went for Obama, who snatched an amazing 73% of the Democratic votes across the border in Kansas.

How is it possible that two nearly identical states with so many things in common (values, agriculture, a strong rural base, lots of wheat, a hatred of Communists, and bigger hatred for all Nebraska sports teams) embrace such different candidates? Of course, Obama's mother was born in Kansas while her father was in the Army, so that may have had some significance; but it's hard to imagine that a transitory birth in the 40's actually affected people at the polls in 2008. Rather, I suspect it has something to do with the very different role that race has played in the ontology of the two states.

Kansas has enjoyed a long history of being among the more progressive Plains states in regard to race, particularly slavery. The so-called "Free Staters" of Kansas fought immigrants from Missouri and other Southern states (sometimes called "Border Ruffians) who hoped to make the new territory a slave state. Bolstered by their own immigrants from the Northeast, the influx of pro and anti-slavery forced reached a head in 1854, and pre-War skirmishes broke out over the next four years. Guerrilla fighters on the side of the Free-Staters during these wars became known as "Jayhawkers," which is now the mascot for the University of Kansas. Eventually, Kansas entered the Union as a free state, and Kansas has nourished a long legacy of racial tolerance.

Not so for Oklahoma.

In terms of both African American and Native American racial issues, Oklahoma has a complicated and difficult past. This began when the Eastern half of the state was set aside as Indian Territory, eventually becoming the termination point for the Trail of Tears. Even up into the 20th century, Oklahoma was a major site for Indian removal and relocation. In addition, Oklahoma bears the burden of the nation's largest race riot--the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921--in which over 300 people were killed. Indeed, at times, there was a kind of triple-segregation in Oklahoma: red, black, white each together, each apart.

Though it is the 21st century and Oklahoma's racial issues are less incindiary than they were 100 years ago, a legacy of cultural memory remains, as do important symbols. For example, I wonder if the University of Kansas logo (Jayhawks) serves as a constant visual reminder of the values that helped found Kansas, and as such daily reinscribes into the consciousness of Kansans their anti-slavery history.

Similarly, I wonder if the OU mascot (Sooners, named after the people who sneaked early into the Land Rushes) serves as a different kind of indicator of the State's troubling history of segregation and Indian Removal. White Oklahomans didn't really engage in wars to keep Oklahoma "Native" or to protect African Americans. In fact, race has always percolated under the surface in Oklahoma; never fully ignored but never fully tapped either.

This is not to say that Kansas hasn't had it's own racial issues; to be sure it has. And, in recent years, Oklahoma has tried to do better with its Native heritage. But, we see daily the many ways in which American culture and values were shaped by its earliest settlers and their cultures and values--in a country of states, should we expect them to be any different?

And so it is that two States who should embrace the same presidential candidates are among the most diametrically opposed in this regard. We think that the past has passed, but as William Faulkner noted, our past is often our future.


  1. I think the fact that the popular Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius endorsed Obama and was featured in commercials in Kansas played a role.

  2. I wondered about the impact of race myself. As a number of people have pointed out, Obama does best among whites in states with few African Americans - places like Iowa or Idaho. So does the difference between Oklahoma's 8% and Kansas' 6.5% make a difference? That doesn't seem likely. But there may be something in the culture of a slave sate versus a free state. Of course, there are other important differences - Democrats in Kansas are mobilised, they've done well in the last few elections. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is one of the few places where the Republicans gained ground in 2006. Would it have been different if Brad Henry had made an endorsement?

    There were interesting contrasts with Kansas, and similarities with Arkansas. I'm curious to see how Texas (especially North Texas) will vote.

  3. And Kansas didn't actually have a primary: they had caucuses. According to conventional wisdom, the folks who show up at a caucus tend to be a bit more activist than your average primary voter, and Obama supporters tend to be a bit more activist than Clinton supporters.

    Then again, I think you've analyzed the racial factor correctly; I just think it's probably a tad less important.

  4. CGHill,

    Yes, you are right. I failed to distinguish between a caucus and a primary. At first, I thought, as you note, that the zeal of caucus--goers may explain the Obama victory. But, then I read that most who caucus are older and more party-driven, which should favor Hillary.

    I do wonder if things would have been different if Henry would have endorsed Obama. Hard to figure.

    Good observations . . .

  5. Bailout 2008, a poem by David Jeffrey:

    Like a bloodied warrior,
    laying broken and torn.

    Like a dying soldier, hopeless and forlorn.

    But the blood, it be green,
    the color of money.

    And the soldier is an economy,
    and it is anything but funny.

    Broken are it’s people and shattered are their dreams.

    Thanks to the ultra rich and their full proof schemes.

    It is a tragedy with more pain to come.

    Finance will be Hell, and their wills will be done.