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October 20, 2008

Some Questions (and Answers) About the Election and Race


With just two weeks to go until Election Day, Barack Obama enjoys a huge lead in both the national polls and in virtually every poll of battleground states. He and running mate Joseph Biden have also won nearly every major poll of who won the presidential debates. He holds advantages in money, organization and enthusiasm, and every new headline about the economic meltdown makes a Republican victory less and less likely. 


But there’s one elephant in the room that complicates matters, and that is, of course, race. Much has been said on the subject, and so without further ado, a few questions (and answers) about the 2008 election and race:


If Obama loses, is racism to blame? The outcome of every election has a thousand factors and a thousand explanations, so it’s unlikely that racism would be the only reason for such a defeat. But if Obama’s vote total significantly underperforms other Democrats, and the exit poll data provides certain indicators? We’ll find out on election day.


What makes you think those opposing Obama are racists? To be clear, I believe that the vast, vast majority of those not voting for Obama will be doing so for reasons having nothing to do with racism, and I don’t believe for a second that the 2008 election is a referendum on whether one is or is not a racist.


But I’ve talked to enough people about the election, seen and read enough discussion and seen enough official Republican fliers to know that this country includes many, many people who oppose Obama at least partially for racist reasons. Anyone who denies that either isn’t paying attention, or chooses not to.


So does racial prejudice dictate people’s votes? Sometimes, but less than you’d think. Ben Smith filed an astonishing report last week in The Politico, quoting an Obama volunteer who has canvassed in Fishtown, a largely white, working-class area of Philadelphia. This canvasser has heard Obama called the n-word and everything else, but . . . even the people calling him that may vote for him anyway, due to the state of the economy.


John McCain, several commenters joked, has run such a horrible campaign that he’s convinced racists to vote for a black man.


So if Obama wins, does that mean racism is a thing of the past? Not exactly. It would prove that racism couldn’t prevent an Obama presidency, but not that it is entirely a spent force. 


Is there anything to this Bradley Effect? Almost certainly not. The effect, for the uninitiated, is the belief that the votes of African-American candidates are overrepresented, because white voters falsely tell pollsters about their intentions to vote for the black candidate.


I believe this is largely bunk, based on several factors. One, aside from New Hampshire, Obama never underperformed expected results in the more than 50 primary contests. Two, polls are both much more prevalent and much more sophisticated today than in 1982. Three, racial attitudes have changed a bit too. And four, I’m not so convinced that people are lying to pollsters on a massive scale. Does anyone care that much what pollsters think about them?


Hasn’t Obama benefited from being black? Wouldn’t he not be where he is today if he were a white guy? This is the sort of question asked only by Geraldine Ferraro, as well as the type of Fox News commentators who believe that no one is racist, except for Al Sharpton. Clearly, being black is such a major advantage in presidential contests that there’s never been a black president or party nominee, ever, until now.


If people won't vote for Obama because he's black, that's racist. But if people do vote for him because he's black, that's not. Why the double standard? I don’t know that it can be ascertained that anyone is voting for Obama “because he’s black.” But why the double standard? I’d say historical context. For a large chunk of our nation’s history, it was legal to own slaves, and for another large chunk, African-Americans were systematically discriminated against. And in that entire 200-plus years no person of any color besides white has gotten anywhere close to the presidency.


I'm voting for Obama, and his race probably isn't one of the top 10 reasons why. But I don't deny, nor should anyone, that the election of an African-American to the presidency would be a momentous historical occasion, as well as an absolutely wonderful thing for this country. Not only would it provide an amazing contrast with the past, but it would send a message to the entire nation and entire planet: The leadership of the free world is no longer restricted to white males only.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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