Racism and the Race
The race boils down to racism. All things being equal, Barack Obama would win the presidency hands down.
Unemployment is at a five-year high.
Wages are shrinking.
The stock market is in the doldrums.
The home foreclosure crisis has shattered the dreams of millions of Americans.
Health care costs keep rising.
Food costs keep rising.
Tuition costs keep rising.
The price of gasoline hit record highs this summer.
We’re in the midst of two wars that aren’t going very well, despite the premature declarations of victory in Iraq.
And three out of every four Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.
This should be a banner year for Democrats, and by all accounts, it will be—at least down ticket.
But it also should be at the top of the ticket.
“Welcome to the murky world of modern racism, where most of the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to measure.”
—Charles M. Blow, in The New York Times
John McCain barely offers anything except the same old, same old Republican nostrums of less government, free trade, and lower taxes on business.
But in a weak economy, the last thing you want to do is cut government spending, since it will only deepen the downturn, as happened in the Great Depression. He painted Obama as a tax-hiking job killer, when in actual fact, Obama would give more tax breaks to the bottom 80 percent of Americans than McCain would, and they are the ones with the pent-up demand for goods who are most likely to spend the money the fastest, thus jump-starting the economy.
Not for nothing did McCain, early in the campaign, acknowledge that he doesn’t know much about economics.
On health care, he proposed zilch in his acceptance speech. All he said was: “My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance.” He didn’t say what his plan was, or how it would accomplish that. And he resorted to the oldest canard about Democrats forcing “families into a government-run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor.”
Just about every American knows that right now an insurance industry bureaucrat or a hospital administrator stands between us and our doctors. And any American on Medicare can tell you that government-funded health care really works.
Leading Republicans at their convention, such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, derided universal health care as some sort of—hold your breath now!—“European” idea.
Obama’s economic and health care proposals also fall short of what they should be, but they offer a chance to make people’s everyday lives better.
On other issues, Obama is wanting.
I especially dislike his vote on the FISA bill, his stance on gun control, his embracing the death penalty, his endorsement of nuclear power, and his studied naiveté about the U.S. empire.
In his acceptance speech, he said he wanted to return to the foreign policy consensus of the past few generations. What does that mean? Vietnam? Funding the contras? Training the death squads in El Salvador? The invasion of Grenada? Panama? Like many critics of the horrible Bush-Cheney regime, Obama assumes that the grotesqueries of empire started in 2001. Not so.
But these aren’t arguments the Republicans make. The only significant one they had against Obama was that he didn’t have the necessary experience in foreign and military policy. But McCain himself threw that away when he irresponsibly chose Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate. All she demonstrated at the Republican Convention was that she could do long derision.
So if the conditions are so ripe for an Obama victory, why is the race so close?
Because millions of white Americans, especially those who are forty-five and older, may not be able to bring themselves to vote for the black guy. It’s that simple.
“Almost all people who reject black candidates say they have nonracial reasons for doing so.”
—Andrew Hacker, in The New York Review of Books
I got an inkling of this in the spring when I went to give a talk in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, about an hour north of Milwaukee. At the dinner beforehand, I was sitting with three elderly white women, who told me they had never voted against a Democrat in their lives. But this time, they couldn’t vote for Obama.
I asked why.
One woman instantly said, “Race has nothing to do with it,” which I took to be a tell.
I asked her what was it, then. And she could not give me any coherent reason.
An article in the Wisconsin State Journal on July 20 mentioned Allan Peck, a white, fifty-year-old repairman from Beaver Dam, who said his friends think, “with a colored President,” the government “will lean more toward the colored people, and we’ll be a minority.”
JoAnn Wypijewski covered the Ohio Democratic primary for The Nation. A white man in a bar in Springfield, Ohio, told her: “I’m not going to vote for the nigger.” Another man from across the bar exclaimed that he knew he wasn’t voting for “the nigger.”
Kevin Merida of The Washington Post reported on the race issue in a May 13 story. Obama campaign workers were startled by the racism they encountered, he said. During the Pennsylvania primary, one woman working the phone bank to voters in Susquehanna County, which is 98 percent white, barely got anywhere. One caller told her: “Hang that darky from a tree.”
The article also mentioned a letter to the editor in a local Pennsylvania paper from Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball, a Hillary Clinton supporter. He wrote: “There is so much that people don’t know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can’t convince me that some of that didn’t rub off.”
These are not random and atypical responses. A New York Times/CBS poll in July asked white respondents if people they knew would cast a ballot for a black candidate. A whopping 19 percent said their friends would not.
The appeals to racism started subtly. Actually, they began not so subtly with Hillary Clinton, when she talked about “hard-working Americans, white Americans.” But on the Republican side, for a while, coyness was the order of the day. The McCain campaign discussed race explicitly only after Obama said he doesn’t look like other people on the dollar bill. The McCain folks were only too eager to say Obama was playing the race card. They also used all the talk about Obama being arrogant, or an elitist, or a celebrity as a cue for the unspoken epithet of “uppity.”
Then it was spoken. Representative Lynn Westmoreland, Republican from Georgia, called Obama “uppity.” When The Hill newspaper followed up by pointing out that the word was racially loaded, Westmoreland did not back off. “Uppity, yeah,” he said.
It’s likely to get uglier.
With Election Day approaching, McCain surrogates or supporters may not be able to resist the temptation to fan the flames of racism. Expect the snippets of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to resurface. Expect video of Michelle Obama sounding militant. Expect disgusting ads about Obama’s admitted drug use as a very young man. Expect that picture of Obama in Muslim garb again.
This campaign will ultimately be a referendum on the intractability of racism.
Obama has only two hopes. One is that the economic conditions will be so dire that white Americans who harbor racism will throw it overboard. And the other is that these white Americans might want to show themselves—or more likely their children and grandchildren—that they are not as hidebound as they sometimes seem.
We’ll know on November 4.
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