Race and the U.S. Presidential Elections
UPDATE 10/08/08: I need to clear up a few misperceptions in comments. 1) Unless the race is really close come election day, I doubt racism will decide this election. I do think it would not even be this close if it wasn’t a factor. 2) The Bradley effect (voters who say they will vote for a black person, but then don’t) is different from those who openly admit they never will. But the latter do make one look for the possibility of the former. 3)With the economy in such bad shape, there may be a “reverse Bradley effect” in swing states like VA, NC, and IN–where people who swear to their friends that they will never vote for a (insert racial epithet here), reverse themselves in the privacy of the voting booth. In the latest poll by the Wall Street Journal (not exactly biased in a liberal or Democratic direction!), 59% of voters placed the economy as their number 1 issue and Obama was rated better than McCain on the economy by 15%!
Despite “Palin bump” for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), I still think several factors favor an Obama-Biden victory in November: 1)As more becomes known about Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), McCain’s VP choice, her popularity among women and independents is tanking. Sure, women were glad to see the first female VP candidate since Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY) in ’84–and all Americans were glad to see SOMETHING new with the GOP and this race. But a woman who has only 20 months in office and lists Alaska’s proximity to Russia as “foreign policy experience,” and then suggests war with Russia, is not reassuring for anyone but hardcore GOP neo-cons. And a woman who would outlaw abortions even in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother strikes most people as extreme. Someone who made a D-minus in macroeconomics is not reassuring in this economic atmosphere–not even to NRA members who are thrilled that she can kill and field-dress a moose. Nor were many Americans reassured that she did not know what the “Bush doctrine” (Bush’s foreign policy guideline that the U.S. should not go to war only as a last resort, but preemptively any time we feel threatened or to spread democracy/capitalism or for whatever reason this week) was, apparently thinking it had something to do with W’s religious beliefs. And Palin’s ethical challenges make her look like just another Republican. So, the shiny is wearing off quickly–and she cannot carry McCain’s limping campaign across the finish line. (She does present a challenge to Joe Biden in the VP debate: He will have to keep focused on McCain, not her, to keep from looking like a bully.) 2) McCain is trying simultaneously to keep his base secure by embracing the Bush legacy and distance himself and run against his party. The result just makes him look either confused or a liar. 3) The economy is being blamed on the party in power. 4)Obama is either leading or statistically tieing in all the battleground states and McCain doesn’t have the resources to cover all his bases–especially in the Democratically-trending West. 5) Obama has the better ground game and this will make a difference in a close election in several states, I think.
However, it remains true that the history and current state of American racism still could defeat Obama. Polls show that as many as 1/3 of white Americans are worried about voting for a black man–still, in 2008. That’s the major reason why this political race remains close. Not the only reason, but the major one. To understand the racial dimension does not require subtle analysis of Fox News’ race-baiting code words, the “secret Muslim terrorist” lie, but simply asking some easy questions. (Many of these examples were sent to me by email from friends in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.)
- What if John McCain were a former president of the Harvard Law Review while Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class at Annapolis (the U.S. Naval Academy)?
- What if McCain had remained faithful and married to his first wife while Obama had left Michelle after she was no longer pretty due to a car accident and married a beautiful, wealthy, woman with political connections? (Actually, this double-standard on whose private life counts as “defending family values,” while breaking them and who is considered a threat to those values while embodying them is also a Republican-Democratic double standard and not just a racial double standard.)
- What if Michelle Obama had not only become addicted to painkillers, but illegally obtained them through her charitable organization as Cindy McCain has?
- What if Cindy McCain had graduated from Harvard Law School and quit corporate law to better help poor families?
- What if Obama had been a member of the “Keating Five” Savings and Loan scandal (which caused a previous economic meltdown and government bailout) as John McCain was? What if hundreds of lobbyists, including for enemy nations like Iran, staffed the Obama campaign the way they do McCain’s?
- What if John McCain were an eloquent speaker with fresh ideas?
If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election
numbers would be as close as they are?This is what racism does. It covers up, rationalizes and minimizes positive
qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in another when
there is a color difference.
Whether U.S. racism is so strong as to decide this election in McCain’s favor remains unknown. We know there is a “Bradley effect,” named for Los Angeles’ mayor Tom Bradley (D) who, according to all the polls, should have been easily elected as the first black governor of California. (When they got in the polling booth, many whites who SAID they would vote for Bradley, didn’t.) But we don’t know if that effect is strong enough to decide this election. Since the days of Bradley, Doug Wilder (D-VA) became governor of Virginia, the first African-American governor of a Southern state since Reconstruction–and Deval Patrick (D-MA) was elected by a stronger margin as governor of MA. The Democratic primaries showed that many whites in states with little or no African-American populations are willing to vote for Obama–but in West Virginia and Kentucky (Democratic states with deep histories of racism) whites openly told British reporters that they would never vote for an African-American.
And the economy, as I have said repeatedly, both helps and hurts Obama simultaneously. It helps his chances because poor economies are blamed (usually rightly) on the party in power and because he has clear, commonsense ideas on how to help while McCain contradicts himself on the economy daily and looks confused, to say the least. But economic anxiety tends to make people “circle the wagons” and resist reaching out to those who are different. America’s worst periods of racial and ethnic strife and our worst anti-immigration eras were also eras of economic dislocation. We made our most significant gains in civil rights (as a result of major organized struggle) in an era of major economic expansion when most white citizens felt secure.
Racism is not the only factor that could lead to a McCain victory–Democrats have a history of shooting themselves in the foot on the way to the finish line in presidential politics; many are still traumatized by 9/11 and still buy the “kill them all” approach to defeating terrorism embodied by Bush and McCain (though much less than in ’04); and 18-35 year old voters, where Obama is strongest, historically turn out in the lowest numbers in U.S. elections, among other factors. But there is no doubt that racism is playing a major part in the way this election remains close.
The presidential debates could have more significance than in most elections and they begin next Friday.
(Remember, I won’t be here to reply to comments for a few days. Please be patient.)
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