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Race: The Elephant in the Room

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A recent study of voter fears shows that a large percentage of white, Democratic voters won’t vote for Barack Obama because his is black. The study reprises patterns that have driven race relations in business and society since our earliest colonial days and continue to this day. Even while agreeing that Republican / McCain policies are driving our economy and ecology to ruin, a large percentage of white voters won’t vote for a black candidate for president, for the sole reason of racial fear.


I know, I know – they say that it isn’t fear. Rather, it’s just discrimination. Most people would rather be considered racist than cowardly. But I think that our history tells us a different story.

Think of the years of the Negro Baseball League, and the outrage when the Boston Celtics drafted the first black pro basketball player, in 1950. People argued that black players belonged in their own leagues for the same reasons that they want women to play in leagues separate from men – performance inequality. The argument is always that black players will push the white players out of a sport. In both cases, we say science supports our discrimination, but in reality, we fear that white players can’t compete at the level of black players.

Some might say that such fear-driven discrimination was ridiculous and is long past. But think how people reacted when Tiger Woods started winning. And think about the Williams sisters in tennis. In both cases, commentators referred to black players “invading” sports which had been lily white. Even now, the sports pages regularly remind us that both Woods and the Williams sisters bring “natural physical advantages” to their competitions. This happens regularly more than two decades after Arthur Ashe broke the color barrier in pro tennis.

Obama and the Race Card
These feelings extend right into our current political campaigns. McCain surrogate Lynn Westmoreland called Barack Obama “uppity” for running for President. Doesn’t that colored boy understand that there are some things that are just not done? Like playing baseball, golf, or tennis against white men. And at every opportunity, McCain surrogates claim that Obama is playing “the race card”. Every mention of “the race card” reminds voters that one of the candidates is a dreaded black man.

Just how many “news stories” does AOL have to run, telling us how white, middle-class, married housewives “perk up” at campaign events when Obama takes the stage? Such stories describe physical excitement and sexual tension. He’s thin, energetic, dynamic, handsome. Do the women agree with him on the need for better (or just minimal) health care for their children, or for financial policies which protect home mortgages as well as bailing out billionaires?

The AOL stories won’t tell us, because AOL is too busy warning husbands that there is a new Mandingo threatening their sexuality, bringing his suave, sensual “message” right into their homes through his elitist access to television and the internet. From the Southern flowers soiled in “Birth of a Nation” to Lilly von Schtupp’s ecstatic “it’s twue, it’s twue” in “Blazing Saddles,” we are schooled to know that black men, who beat us in baseball, basketball, football, and now even golf, have always been better “endowed”, better dancers, better fighters.

And now, one of them is claiming to be a better presidential candidate, just because he is better “endowed” intellectually and emotionally! Is there no end to the privileges we have to give up?

Messages Dripping Fear
Am I exaggerating? While I like to read weblogs, I find that often the best actual information comes from the comments people post in response to a blog. You can spot the posters who work for the McCain campaign or one of the Republican party operations – they have a limited number of scripts to repeat, and they post throughout the day, not being bothered by having to go to work or school. Their messages drip fear.

It isn’t just the conscious lies about Obama’s tax plans or his legislative history. A constant drumbeat in the McCain online campaign is the claim that Obama will appoint Jesse Jackson to be Secretary of State, and Al Sharpton to be Secretary of H.U.D. He’s going to appoint Michelle or even Oprah to be Attorney General. None of this is supported by any reference to facts. It doesn’t need to be.

The point of the McCain campaign’s online effort is to reinforce white fear of a black man taking something more “from” white society. This is another angle on the “ignore the issues” theme of McCain. The “issue” this effort wants to focus on is race. McCain is desperate to avoid examinations of his history of favoring deregulation of banks, of favoring insurers against patients and injured people, of his support for Bush war policies giving no-bid welfare to KBR and Haliburton.

Far, far better that we focus on Obama’s youth, his elitism, and his sexual imagery. How terrible is it that he is both tall and athletic enough to ‘stuff’ O’Reilly on the B-ball court and smart enough not to pursue the short, shooting-star career of a professional ball player? You just can’t trust a black man who went to the head of the class at Harvard and then acted so uppity that he even pushed reforms in the terrible world of Chicago politics. And like Bill Clinton, he got a beautiful wife, so we know he’s ‘like’ other black men. What do we risk with our white interns if we turn him loose in the Oval Office?

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Smart and Uppity: A Lethal Combination
Racism? Maybe. But fear certainly. A man this smart and this uppity might actually do what McCain talks about doing – change things. He might rock the boat. Just like McCain, his track record is clear. When he got to the Senate from Chicago, he brought his desire for ethics reform with him. Unlike McCain, he brought action to back up his talk.

No senior senator (certainly not McCain) was interested in working on ethics reform. So they pushed it off on the junior guy from Illinois – help him learn the ropes, learn the limits. He talks a good game, but he’ll learn the limits. Except that he didn’t learn the limits. While McCain and other senior guys talked about reform, Obama actually worked on it and got some done. One reason McCain doesn’t like Obama’s experience is that Obama let McCain experience the difference between talking like a maverick and acting like one.

McCain is 72. Palin is 44. Within Sarah Palin’s lifetime, black people were required to enter buildings by separate doors from whites, sit in different seats in theaters, restaurants and buses, and drink from different water fountains. And they were kept away from the polls by “literacy tests”. They were required to attend different schools from whites – schools where 30 or 40 students might share one (worn, out-of-date) book in class - schools without plumbing, with leaky roofs, and sometimes without lights. Then they were “tested” on their reading comprehension when they tried to register to vote – and were turned away.

Maverick John McCain isn’t running any ads featuring old video of him marching in protest against those segregation ways. Those marches were organized by whom? By the same “community organizers” on whom the McCain campaign heaps derision – those terrible community organizers who did, and still do, teach “them” to be uppity, to demand more than we want to give, to do things that feed our fears.

Instead, McCain staffers are hammering out ads feeding our fears and lying about Obama’s record and McCain’s intentions to reform rather than to further deregulate things.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be afraid of a campaign which preys on racial fear to distract voters’ attention from real issues and from real policy differences between the candidates.

Tom Hall

Be brave. Demand honesty. Challenge your friends and neighbors when they use racial code words when describing Obama or an imagined Obama administration. Sunlight is a disinfectant. Strip the cover off the code words and let the sun shine in. We can’t stop people from voting blind racism. But we can help open their eyes to what it is, so that they can decide.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family law attorney. He is originally from Boston, where he grew up in the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quakers), thinking that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people to participate in highly disciplined nonviolent demonstrations (real disciplined nonviolence is just plain maddening to police forces who count on demonstrators giving them reason to get 'messy' during public demonstrations). After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make himself a comfortable life. The Bush administration has shocked him back into social concerns. Tom can be reached at

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