Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Race Creeps Into Race (part 2)

For the second time this week, I was struck by an article regarding race and the presidential election, particularly the overt expressions of racial hostility amongst voters here in the south.

For Some, Uncertainty Starts at Racial Identity:

The McCain campaign’s depiction of Barack Obama as a mysterious “other” with an impenetrable background may not be resonating in the national polls, but it has found a receptive audience with many white Southern voters.

In interviews here in the Deep South and in Virginia, white voters made it clear that they remain deeply uneasy with Mr. Obama — with his politics, his personality and his biracial background. Being the son of a white mother and a black father has come to symbolize Mr. Obama’s larger mysteries for many voters. When asked about his background, a substantial number of people interviewed said they believed his racial heritage was unclear, giving them another reason to vote against him.

“He’s neither-nor,” said Ricky Thompson, a pipe fitter who works at a factory north of Mobile, while standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store just north of here. “He’s other. It’s in the Bible. Come as one. Don’t create other breeds.”

And it only gets worse.

Many voters seemed to have no difficulty criticizing the mixing of the races — and thus the product of such mixtures — even as they indignantly said a candidate’s color held no importance for them.

“I would think of him as I would of another of mixed race,” said Glenn Reynolds, 74, a retired textile worker in Martinsville, Va., and a former supervisor at a Goodyear plant. “God taught the children of Israel not to intermarry. You should be proud of what you are, and not intermarry.”

Other voters swept past such ambiguities into old-fashioned racist gibes.

“He’s going to tear up the rose bushes and plant a watermelon patch,” said James Halsey, chuckling, while standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot with fellow workers in the environmental cleanup business. “I just don’t think we’ll ever have a black president.”

There is nothing unusual about mixed-race people in the South, although in decades past there was no ambiguity about the subject. Legally and socially, a person with any black blood was considered black when segregation was the law.
It's also true that the southern states were the last to repeal (by force and order of the federal courts) miscegenation laws and those which specifically forbade interracial marriage.

Bud Rowell also said that personal experience had made him more sympathetic to biracial people.

“I’ve always been against the blacks,” said Mr. Rowell, who is in his 70s, recalling how he was arrested for throwing firecrackers in the black section of town. But now that he has three biracial grandchildren — “it was really rough on me” — he said he had “found out they were human beings, too.”

On the one hand, it's easy to dismiss this article for its selective bias against those expressing hostile views about race. We don't know how the reporter picked his subjects (who seem to be disproportionately older), nor do we know if he steered or cajoled such reactions out of these persons with bias questioning.

But it would also be a mistake to dismiss this as just bad reporting. The fact remains, these attitudes do exist more in the south than in other areas of the country, and the idea that we're somehow in a "post-racial world", where race no longer matters, is simply fantasy.

UPDATE: The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an even-handed, in-depth treatment of this issue worth checking out.


Ryan said...

Something I find interesting about this election campaign... and the studies of the effects that race are having upon it, is the seeming lack of exploration into how race is negatively affecting Senator McCain. I have seen many articles and supposedly unbiased studies which report ad nauseam about the relatively rare, oddball white racists who hate Senator Obama simply for the color of his skin. Nowhere, however, have I seen reporting which addresses African American and other Minority voters who are voting for Sen. Obama BECAUSE of his skin color. I am inclined to believe that those who will cast their vote in favor of Sen. Obama due to race outnumber those who will vote against him for the same reason. In my mind at least… the former is every bit as despicable as the latter.
Racism is not dead, and it is fitting and proper to denounce racism as evil. However, the notion that racism is defined as “hatred or discrimination by white people against black people” is incorrect. Racism is a two way street.
With that being said, I think that the attacks being used by Gov. Palin and which seem to be condoned by Sen. McCain and his supporters are pathetic, at best… Third party candidates seem to be the only respectable options this election cycle.

Zaid at UGA said...

"Something I find interesting about this election campaign... and the studies of the effects that race are having upon it, is the seeming lack of exploration into how race is negatively affecting Senator McCain."

While I think ryan is right that to some extent the racism thing is kind of being picked up by the media and put forth as a self-fullfilling prophecy, we should note that racial minorities usually do vote for the Democrats as is. Also, I think it's counterproductive that we're repudiating the people who go to McCain rallies who are obviously uneducated and ignorant and hateful yet the news media doesn't talk about system racism nearly as much.

They like to find one person who they can label as a bad racist but not talk about the social responsibility we have when our jails disproportionately jail racial minorities, when the health and education systems are biased against them, and many other factors.

Zaid at UGA said...


Todd Krohn said...

Ryan and Zaid,

You both make some interesting comments. I would agree with Ryan that racism is certainly not something that is unilateral or unique with whites. Racism is a two-way street and is very much alive and well in every racial and ethnic group.

But I would disagree that this somehow cancels out the importance of race in general. Just because there are racists in every group doesn't mean racism of one group or another should be devalued.

If it's whites who won't vote for Obama because of his race or African-Americans who won't for McCain because of his race, we need to acknowledge that such racism is problematic.

I would also agree with both of you that the "few nuts and yahoos" at the McCain/Palin rallies should not be seen as indicative of their supporters. Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, makes that point, and the downside of "playing the race card," in his column today:

I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but I do think we should be able to discuss race without it degenerating into finger pointing and vitriol.

That Youtube clip...I'm sure the interviewees would have been even more over-the-top if they realized they were being interviewed by Aljazeera English!