Monday, October 13, 2008

Race and the (U.S. Presidential) Race

Regardless of which candidate you might favor in this year's U.S. presidential elections, I think it's safe to say that this year's race is turning out to be quite a case study in race and racism that will be analyzed and cited by academics, activists, politicians and pundits for decades to come. Two recent columns in the New York Times help to shed some light on the situation.

Frank Rich focuses on the nature of the increasingly overt racism that has been observed amongst McCain-Palin supporters in recent weeks.

All’s fair in politics. John McCain and Sarah Palin have every right to bring up William Ayers, even if his connection to Obama is minor, even if Ayers’s Weather Underground history dates back to Obama’s childhood, even if establishment Republicans and Democrats alike have collaborated with the present-day Ayers in educational reform. But it’s not just the old Joe McCarthyesque guilt-by-association game, however spurious, that’s going on here. Don’t for an instant believe the many mindlessly “even-handed” journalists who keep saying that the McCain campaign’s use of Ayers is the moral or political equivalent of the Obama campaign’s hammering on Charles Keating.

What makes them different, and what has pumped up the Weimar-like rage at McCain-Palin rallies, is the violent escalation in rhetoric, especially (though not exclusively) by Palin. Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” He is “palling around with terrorists” (note the plural noun). Obama is “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” Wielding a wildly out-of-context Obama quote, Palin slurs him as an enemy of American troops.

By the time McCain asks the crowd “Who is the real Barack Obama?” it’s no surprise that someone cries out “Terrorist!” The rhetorical conflation of Obama with terrorism is complete. It is stoked further by the repeated invocation of Obama’s middle name by surrogates introducing McCain and Palin at these rallies. This sleight of hand at once synchronizes with the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts and shifts the brand of terrorism from Ayers’s Vietnam-era variety to the radical Islamic threats of today.

That’s a far cry from simply accusing Obama of being a guilty-by-association radical leftist. Obama is being branded as a potential killer and an accessory to past attempts at murder.
While such instances of overt racism as described by Rich are no doubt having an influence on the election, Nicholas Kristof argues that the type of racism that is really driving this election is much more subtle and, typically, unconscious on the part of the persons who wield it.

The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama’s support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That’s significant but surmountable.

Most of the lost votes aren’t those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.

The bottom line is that Barack Obama--America's first black presidential contender--is plagued by race on both sides of the aisle. On one hand, he must confront the shameless racial and ethnic slurs from overzealous McCain supporters. And on the other, he must overcome the invisible, unconscious racism that is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of those who sincerely believe that they support racial equality. No doubt, the barriers posed by the latter group will me much more difficult to overcome.

UPDATE:Michael Westmoreland-White over at Levellers identifies some additional resources on race and the Bradley effect (or lack thereof) in this year's election.

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