Race Relations: Questions for the Fall

Now that it is more certain than ever that Obama will be the Democratic nominee, he has shifted to a general election strategy that focuses on John McCain while ignoring Hillary Clinton. The rigors of a general election campaign will force Obama to present his message to voters who are more hostile to his candidacy than voters in a primary election campaign. The 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns brought us frivolous issues like drunk driving arrests, post-Vietnam patriotism, fuzzy math, windsurfing, cursing at journalists, and earth tones. The impact of these issues on one's ability to govern was limited, but the media made a very big deal out of them anyway.

However, one issue that is almost certain to provide a subtext of this fall's campaign is the issue of race. Barack Obama has done a reasonably good job of staying away from proactively making race relations the core of his candidacy. His contributions to the discussion have largely been in response to media-generated inquiries (e.g., "Is Obama Black enough?"), the rhetoric of his political opponents (e.g., comments about his middle name and Hillary Clinton's South Carolina campaign), and circumstances surrounding those he once associated with (e.g., Jeremiah Wright).

Kevin Merida of the Washington Post penned an excellent column addressing racist incidents targeting Barack Obama campaign volunteers in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Some of the incidents mentioned in the article are quite discouraging, as they were directed against teenage supporters of the senator, both Black and White, in broad daylight.

In addition to being a good read, this article is significant because it represents the easiest angle from which the media tend to address any discussion of race in America. The media are guilty of walking on the same trodden path, fighting the same old battles, and relying on the same tired talking heads for "insight." In the case of Obama, this means identifying him as "Black" even though he's biracial, and playing up the "White racism" directed at him and his supporters.

We've talked about this story many times before, and it's not going away. How many more times do we have to explore whether Blacks overuse the "race card" or whether Whites are insensitive to the concerns of people of color? This is not to trivialize the issue of race by any means, but it does make many people hope that if we as a nation are going to try and address this issue, we will at least explore new ways to discuss it.

I encourage you to read Merida's article and think about these questions. These would be good questions for the media to pursue, rather than the same old assignments of blame and obfuscations:

Is it possible to be a racist and a Christian at the same time?

Is it possible to love America and harbor blanket hatred towards an entire segment of the American population at the same time? Can one be both patriotic and racist?

Is one group of people called upon to denounce the misguided members of their race more often then members of another group?

To what extent are racism and economic conditions related?

Has Obama truly exercised restraint in playing up these issues in the media? Have the media been helpful, harmful, opportunistic, or derelict in examining the racism swirling around his campaign thus far?

Does the near monolithic support of one candidate among one demographic group overshadow the near monolithic support of another candidate among another demographic group in terms of scrutiny? If so, why is there such a disparity?

Why are some people so reluctant to acknowledge that the issue of race is a bigger and more persistent problem than they may think? (It's amazing that people are still saying things like "Hang that darky from a tree!" in 2008.) And by the same token, why are some people so eager to tar others as racists at the slightest perceived injustice?

Why are some people so ready to interpret any criticism of Obama as evidence of racist tendencies? And how can one distinguish between people who have legitimate criticisms of Obama and people who use these criticisms to mask their own racism?

How will Republicans deal with voters who openly support them out of racism against Obama? How strongly will they denounce such voters? Will they denounce racist voters with the same fervor they had when they called on Obama to denounce Jeremiah Wright? Will voters demand that Republicans do so? How hard will Republicans work to overcome the perception that their party is a haven for bigots?

Would some of the criticisms surrounding Obama (e.g., Pingate, Bittergate, Wrightgate, Muslimgate) have survived as long as they have in the media and among voters had he been White? Are similar warts among other candidates being ignored?

How have rumors about Obama's religion persisted for so long? And who is perpetuating them? And how can elected officials who knowingly spread this misinformation be held accountable?

How much responsibility should people of all races (including Whites) take in an attempt to achieve racial reconciliation or at least arrive at a bit of civility in our dialogue about the subject? And who constitutes the next generation of leaders who will push the discussion of race in a new direction? Why are people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton still the first "leaders" the media consult when seeking "insight" about race?

For better or worse, race is not going away this fall, so pundits, politicians, and voters should get used to it. Regardless of how it plays out in the weeks and months ahead, Obama's candidacy presents the nation as a whole a unique opportunity to address this subject in a raw and substantive way that is more productive than the same tired discussions we as a nation are used to having. Some voters might not be comfortable being confronted with this issue yet again, but given Merida's article, perhaps the reason we even have to discuss it at all is not because of Obama himself...

10 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Nice post, Palmer.

DB said...

As everyone knows, things that are "different" make people uncomfortable. Humans, a creature of habit, find solice in the status quo. Obama shakes that comfort zone of many people. I feel sorry for those people who use his ethnicity to hide their fear.

I am surprised that people responded to Obama's campaign volunteers in such a hateful way (referencing Merida's article). Wouldn't a simple "I am not interested" suffice over "I will never vote for a black person?" Truly sad.

Nikki said...

Oh if Obama were just a bit more coservative...what could have been, but as it stands he is far to left for me and quite a few others...I will undoubtedly get "you are a racist" comments on my blog for the Obama bashing I will undoubtedly do within the next few months leading to the general...You ask some good questions Anthony, I doubt america is ready to answer them. :)N

Anthony Palmer said...


People tend to fear the unfamiliar. This has played out with immigrant-bashing, people who speak other languages, and people who have "funny names" many times in the past. I guess for voters who will hold Obama's race against him by voting for someone else even though they are philosophically closer to him will get the government they deserve.



I actually think I'll vote Libertarian in November. Obama is indeed very, very liberal and doesn't match up with my views either. I don't dispute your reasons for not supporting Obama and hope that the trolls stay away from your blog. However, I just wish there was a way to separate those who have legitimate gripes with Obama from those who have racist gripes about him. I would really like it if someone from the "big media" would find this post and ask some of these questions. But like you said, maybe the nation isn't quite ready yet. That's okay though because I'll be sure to ask them later--either when I'm a politician, a pundit, or a journalist. We'll see.

And Schenck, thanks.

Brett said...

This doesn't surprise me (and Merida's article was excellent, although some more statistics would probably help). Official racism was broken in the 1960s, but it continued to exist in strong force well into the 1980s (at least as a political prop), and some strands of it continue to exist now.

That is, in of itself, no surprise. The above means that almost everyone over 35 would have experienced at least some of it, the legacy of the brutal nadir of American race relations after Reconstruction.

I think the only way it will go away is if a black man is elected President. Strident anti-catholicism dogged Kennedy throughout his race (although not as bad as decades earlier in the 1928 Al Smith campaign), and it was only through his victory and presidency that this was severely weakened.

Dominic said...

Great Post, Professor!

I live outside D.C., which is arguably an Obama stronghold. However, Virginia is an orgy of societal class (There's Northern Virginia, Southern Virginia, Western Appalachian Virginia...). The same can be said of Maryland, The Old Line State, where you've got a large urban/sub-urban population with Montgomery County and Baltimore County, and then you've got Eastern Shore and Annapolis, super blue-collar areas where the population density (and political affiliations) is, by contrast, vastly different.

I support Obama, and I printed off a piece of paper that says, "YES WE CAN!" in a 65pt Arial font. It sits on the back corner window of my Jeep. I eventually wrote Obama'08 on it, just to drive my point home.

Driving around the DC Metro area, some mornings have me bombarded by honks, waves, and screamers, all agreeing with my personal selection for President. It's uplifting, and gratifying to know that others agree with me, and I with them. It means that we both agree one 2 issues, Obama should be president, and DC traffic is either ridiculously suicidal or slower than aid to Katrina victims.

Now, if I drive to visit my parents in Richmond or Annapolis, the exact opposite happens. I'm bombarded by middle-fingers, McCain stickers, and really, really dirty looks.

Perfect Example: A guy in a large pick up tried to run me off of Rt. 50 (major highway in MD)while en-route to Annapolis a few days ago. Upon Passing, he called me, "A Damn Nigger Lover".

My grandmother lives in a large retirement community, about 15 miles outside the DC lines in Montgomery County. Her neighbor, at 69 year old black woman from Georgia, pulled me aside a few weeks ago while I was leaving and talked very frankly and passionately about Obama and her views for about 20 minutes in the middle of the street. She quoted, in great detail, several speeches and referred to him as a "messiah". She eventually hugged me as strong as she could and warmly, said, "All we ever have is Hope."

Reginald Harrison Williams said...


I would be interested in hearing Bob Barr's answers to your superb questions.


Anthony Palmer said...

Dominic (and Brett),

I really appreciate your anecdote, although I'm sorry you've experienced harassment simply because of a bumper sticker or sign on your car. Incredible. I think Brett made a very good point in that perhaps the most effective way to combat such racism is to actually put the issue of race right in everyone's face by forcing them to confront it. I'm not saying people should vote for Obama so he can teach us a lesson about racism, but I do think that an Obama presidency would force a lot of people to deal with issues that would be less likely to come up with a President Clinton or a President McCain.

I personally thought the DC area would have been a bit more progressive and would have included Annapolis as part of that area. But I guess not. That's unfortunate.

By the way, thanks for the promotion, Dominic, but I am not a professor (yet). I'm a PhD student, but I also work full-time as a teacher. So I'm very busy. You can call me "Professor" if you wish though!



Bob Barr has actually intrigued me. I must admit that I have warmed up to him considerably since the impeachment hearings. He's a strong conservative for sure, but more of an ideological one rather than a partisan one. And there's a lot of overlap between conservatism and libertarianism. Seems like today's libertarianism is the offshoot of Barry Goldwater noninterventionist free-choice conservatism. I might vote for him in November, actually.

Thanks everyone for the good comments.

Thomas said...

I saw somewhere today that Bob Barr spoke out in support of today's ruling by the California Supreme Court on gay marriage. He said that is a perfect example of federalism in play and that sometimes that could lead to choices that you wouldn't have made.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

they can already smell the coffee

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