Some of my more optimism-oriented friends seem at times to confuse their own good faith, open minds, and generosity of heart with the general condition of their fellow Americans. As a result, they thought I was being far too cynical after the Iowa presidential primaries. Like much of the media, they were thrilled to say that the Iowa results demonstrated that whites would vote for Barack Obama. My more-guarded reaction was something like:
“Iowa had a great outcome, but it tells us little about how whites will vote in states that traditionally have had more racial strife — especially those that have large numbers of Black residents or are suffering from economic distress.”
Sad to say, many subsequent primaries did appear to indicate that many whites (and perhaps many Hispanics, too) will find it very hard to vote for a Black man — especially if they can find any issue that allows them to rationalize their vote.
Frankly, I have at times worried that my own pessimism on this topic might be skewed by my childhood revulsion and embarrassment over the bigotry that was voiced and acted upon (can you say “white flight”?) all around the blue-collar neighborhoods where I grew up. I’ve also worried that my gloomy view about lingering American racism might be amplified by an elitist need to feel morally superior to others. Nonetheless, I’m fairly sure both of those impulses are reasonably under control.
Unless there have been words or actions demonstrating racism, I will give every human being the benefit of the doubt. I do, however, believe that some demographic groups include significantly more overt racists — those who act on it — than other groups do.
This is, of course, one of those topics upon which I would love to be proven wrong. However, two recent articles seem to suggest that there are indeed many Americans who might not vote for Barack Obama solely on the basis of his being African-American. See
- Susan Estrich’s column of June 11, 2008, “The Other Forty Percent.” Estrich says if you ask the question the right way [“do you have family or friends who are racists?’], you learn that “17 percent of white voters say that their family, friends and co-workers would not vote for an African-American and 26 percent more just aren’t sure. Not sure if your best friends are racist? Nice. That totals up to more than 40 percent — more than four in 10.”
- Yesterday’s Washington Post piece, “3 in 10 Americans Admit to Race Bias: Survey Shows Age, Too, May Affect Election Views” (June 22, 2008), which starts “As Sen. Barack Obama opens his campaign as the first African American on a major party presidential ticket, nearly half of all Americans say race relations in the country are in bad shape and three in 10 acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.”
Estrich figures more than 40% of the population may refuse to vote for a black person, if four out of ten are willing to admit to a pollster that their friends and relatives are racist. She notes that this means Obama may “have to win the votes of every person or even 5 out of 6 of them who might consider voting for you. That’s too little room for disagreement. It’s why high negatives are such a problem.”
Estrich is, nonetheless, hopeful that:
“At the end of the day, for better and for worse, what most voters care about is themselves, their own lives and their families. Obama’s challenge is not to convince them to change their minds about race, or racism, but to put themselves first.”
I’m not convinced that the number of voters who want a Whites Only White House is 40% or more. [Many in the survey may have meant that some of those close to them are racists, not all.] But, I am sure that there are significant numbers who hold that view — enough to make Obama’s election an uphill fight in the actual voting booth, despite polls showing him even or ahead now. Those race haters — like many extremists and ideologues — will often vote against their personal financial interests on matters of principle (no matter how foul or misguided the principle may be).
By the way: Unlike pollsters and pundits who cheerily say that it is always better to have more people active in politics, I would be very pleased if the bigots and haters would stay home on election day.
I’m sure my Optimist Friends will point me to the conclusions in the Post-ABC News poll, which found: “At the same time, there is an overwhelming public openness to the idea of electing an African American to the presidency. In a Post-ABC News poll last month, nearly nine in 10 whites said they would be comfortable with a black president. While fewer whites, about two-thirds, said they would be “entirely comfortable” with it . . . ” Even those numbers suggest that a black Barack Obama will have a harder time getting elected than a white Obama would.
I have no idea how to change the hearts and minds of racists. My hope is that enough whites will vote for Obama to put him in the White House. When that happens, and the sky doesn’t fall during the Obama Administration, perhaps the Whites Only bunch will start to come around. Until then, I say:
This is not the America in which I want to live:
– Let’s hope that time will cure the disease of American racism, and that it is not so rampant that it will significantly affect the 2008 Presidential Election. —