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Race and the Election

By every statistical measure, it looks clearer and clearer every day that Barack Obama will become the first African American president in the history of the United States—a country founded on slavery and sustained by 300 years of racial oppression.

Yet despite the favorable polling pointing to an Obama victory, many in the mainstream media and among Obama’s supporters wonder if, in the end, racism will lead to the unraveling of this lead, and yet give life to John McCain and Sarah Palin’s moribund campaign.

With nothing new to add to a campaign season that has been going on for almost two full years, the pundits spent the last couple of weeks before the November 4 election wondering about whether white voters will actually come out and vote for Obama, and if there will be a so-called “Bradley effect.”

Beyond this, Obama’s own supporters and progressives in general are concerned that the Republican Party’s turn to open racism and smears against Obama will cut into his support.

While understandable, these fears ignore the palpable growth of anti-racism in U.S. society over the last 30 years—most obviously exemplified by the candidacy of Barack Obama himself, but evident in other ways as well.

To start with, what is the Bradley effect? In 1982, the former African American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, looked to be in command of the race for governor of California. Most polls showed him leading beyond the margin of error, and many predicted he would become the first African American governor in the 20th century.

But when the votes were counted, Bradley lost. The media were quick to conclude that some group of whites, fearing they would be considered racist, told pollsters they would vote for Bradley, but when alone in the voting booth, they supported Bradley’s Republican opponent.

It’s not unfathomable that, only 17 years after Blacks were formally guaranteed the unobstructed right to vote with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there would be white voters who told pollsters one thing and did something else in the polling booth. But there may be other explanations for the difference between the polling and the actual results in that 1982 contest—like poor polling in the first place.

According to V. Lance Tarrance, who conducted opinion surveys for Bradley’s Republican challenger, the polls for the governor’s race were defective for two reasons: one, they didn’t take into account large number of absentee voters who were mailing in ballots, and two, those interpreting the polls—the media—didn’t accurately gauge how Republican George Deukmejian was quickly closing the gap on Bradley.

Lastly, the polls that predicted a Bradley victory weren’t completely off. Bradley won on Election Day, in that among those who cast a ballot that day, Bradley won a majority of votes. He lost because of the absentee votes.

Nevertheless, the “Bradley effect” has been observed in other close elections with high-profile Black candidates—such as former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, both of whom won elections by a narrower margin thatn the polls indicated.

But a recent Harvard study of elections involving Black and non-Black candidates gave another explanation for the gap. Looking at gubernatorial and senatorial races from 1989 and 2006, it concluded: “As racialized rhetoric about welfare and crime receded from national prominence in the mid-1990s, so did the gap between polling and performance.”

In other words, as explicit (though coded) appeals to racism became less popular, racism generally became less viable in electoral politics.

This certainly reflects the trend in electoral contests of growing number of Black candidates supported by white voters. According to a New York Times analysis, approximately 200 Black politicians have won positions once held by whites in both Northern and Southern states, including New Hampshire, Minnesota, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. By 2007, about 30 percent of the 622 Black legislators at the state level represented predominately white districts, up from 16 percent in 2001.

None of this is to say that the U.S. is no longer a racist country or that African Americans have achieved some level of full equality—or even that the election of Barack Obama as president will, somehow, close the book on racism in this country.

The media and political parties themselves focus on the actions of white voters—in particular, the actions of working-class whites, who are condescendingly referred to as the “Joe Six-Pack” (or, now, “Joe the Plumber”) voters—with the expectation that these voters will be more racist and reactionary, and generally ignorant of issues that go beyond what immediately affects them.

The media invoke the legacy of the so-called Reagan Democrats—blue-collar workers with a history of voting Democrat who “defected” to the Republicans during the 1980s.

The Republicans whipped up racism with a “war on drugs” and attacks on Black women as “welfare queens” to win the votes of white workers.

Yet even in the face of such brazen efforts to race-bait and scapegoat, Rev. Jesse Jackson won more than 2 million white votes in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries, and forced the mainstream media and the Democratic Party to take his “fringe” campaign seriously.

By avoiding the issue of race like the plague, Obama’s campaign has contributed to the distorted picture of ordinary white workers’ consciousness. Under no circumstances will anyone formally associated with the campaign mention race or racism—because of the deeply cynical belief that the so-called Joe Six Packs simply won’t support anyone who is viewed as pro-Black. In other words, Obama has to transcend race in order to win votes.

There may be aspects of this picture that are true in a limited way that accepts the status quo as unchanging and unchangeable. But on the whole, the strategy that drives Obama’s reaction to issues of race is based on anti-working class stereotypes that view white workers as intrinsically and intractably racist, and unable to summon the slightest sense of solidarity with African Americans.

Most of this caricature of white workers was born in the late 1960s when Richard Nixon inexplicably ascended to the presidency on the votes of what he termed the “silent majority.”

The so-called “silent majority” was never as much a majority as the punditry and academics liked to claim. Moreover, then as now, it was never really Joe Six Pack who was the reactionary—it was the suburban, middle-class “swing voters” who were always more attracted to the conservative politics and promises of the Republicans.

Blue collar workers—including Blacks, Latinos and other non-whites—have always been concerned about jobs, the economy, their wages and benefits, government programs that could help them make ends meet, and the wars the U.S. starts which their children must go to fight.

This is why workers have always been the core constituency of the Democratic Party—because Democrats, in spite of their record, profess to care about their interests on these issues.

The point is that while the media and the strategists of both parties like to blame ordinary whites for tipping elections one way or the other because of bigotry, they’re the ones who bear the greatest responsibility for stoking racism, while simultaneously pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Both Hillary Clinton and the McCain-Palin ticket had no qualms reaching for the race card when they were behind in the polls.

Clinton claimed that only she could win the votes of “hard-working Americans, white Americans” for the Democratic Party—meaning, of course, that white workers would never vote for a Black man.

McCain and Palin went straight to questioning whether “small-town America” can really trust someone who was a community organizer “on the South Side of Chicago.” More recently, Palin declared, “We believe that the best of America is in the small towns that we get to visit, and in the wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation…This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.”

Palin and McCain see “the real America” in small white towns, outside of the gritty urban centers where people named Barack engage in community organizing. Such comments aren’t accidents—they are part of a well-crafted strategy aimed at pushing ordinary whites to pause before voting for Obama.

The functionaries within the Republican Party are the ones who have been caught for pandering to the worst kind of racism—whether calling Obama “Barack Hussein Obama” at McCain-Palin rallies, or using racist caricatures in campaign materials, or running bigoted ads on television or the radio.

But what’s more interesting than the predictable behavior of Republicans is that, despite their hardest efforts, it isn’t working.

In fact, the most recent polls have shown a decided backlash against the McCain-Palin ticket for being “negative.” In fact, it was after the Republicans really climbed in the gutter and accused Obama of, in Palin’s words, “palling around with terrorists”—one GOP functionary even demanded that Obama come clean about his “cocaine habit and that he’s from the street”—that McCain and Palin experienced their biggest drop in the polls.

This isn’t to say that racism isn’t a factor in the election—far from it. Despite Obama’s victory in the Democratic primaries—a feat in and of itself, considering that the roots of the party are deeply embedded in America’s racist foundation—that fact that he hasn’t left McCain in the dust is evidence of the effect of bigotry.

If Obama were white and still had the attributes most people associate with him: young, handsome, intelligent, thoughtful and symbolizing a new political direction after eight disastrous years of George Bush, the race would have been over a long time ago.

While Obama has been the victim of a racist smear campaign, he made it worse by refusing on principle to condemn the racism of the Republicans. That gave the GOP the opening to escalate their rhetoric—to the extent that McCain-Palin rallies attract racists who denounce Obama as a “terrorist.”

The mainstream media have finally started to expose the McCain campaign for stoking anti-Obama hatred and racism. But there is another angle to this question that completely ignored.

The almost exclusive focus on what whites will and won’t do in the election has obscured the historic impact that African American voters hope to have. Black communities across the country are barely able to contain their pride, hope and exhilaration in an Obama presidency.

Typically, the most apolitical four hours of any day can be found on Black radio during comedic morning shows. But for months, these shows have been imploring people to register to vote—and they’ve now shifted to get-out-the-vote campaigns. There are daily reports on the state of the campaign and constant mocking of the McCain-Palin ticket.

There are other signs of a massive Black turnout on November 4. In Georgia, of the 150,000 people who have already cast ballots early, almost 40 percent were African American. The long primary season resulted in millions more voters being registered, and many of them are Black. Moreover, African Americans feel as if they have a stake in the election, which in turn will create even more community pressure to get everyone out to vote.

This is why the McCain-Palin campaign has turned to a focus on suppressing the vote by raising questions about the community organization ACORN and its voter registration drive.

In all likelihood, none of these desperate measures will work. In many ways, the upcoming election is a referendum on race and racism in the U.S. The likely victory of Barack Obama won’t end racism in America. That will be the job of ordinary people—Black, Brown and white—organizing in struggle to press for their demands.

But an Obama victory will certainly indicate how much ideas and consciousness of regular Americans—the vast majority of working-class people—have changed in the last 40 years.

KEEANGA-YAMATTA TAYLOR lives in Chicago. She can be reached at: keeangataylor2008@u.northwestern.edu

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