Race and the US Presidential Race

Project Syndicate  |  Oct 1, 2008

By Sin-ming Shaw

BUENOS AIRES – Three-quarters of Americans now disapprove of President George W. Bush’s performance. Given this, and the fact that the policies and values of John McCain and his vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, are almost identical to those of Bush, you would expect Obama to be leading in the polls by a wider margin than he is.

The reason that he is not, I suspect, is racism. When polled, most older white voters overwhelming reject Obama, even if many of them are unhappy with Bush. Indeed, one-third of Democrats have at various times told pollsters that they will not vote for a black candidate. And a recent Associated Press/Yahoo News poll suggested that his race is costing Obama six percentage points in the polls.

Most of the time, this racism is covert, only hinted at through code words. The media, particularly the increasingly popular conservative media and talk radio, are particularly important here. Obama is consistently criticized for his “otherness” and his “arrogance,” terms that call to mind the image of the “uppity nigger” from the days of segregation, which are actually not so far in America’s past.

In a recent interview, Bill O’Reilly, the most popular TV talk show host at Fox News, America’s most watched news station, talked down to Obama in so condescending a manner that some viewers were reminded of the image of a slave owner in an old Hollywood movie putting a young black upstart in his place.

Sean Hannity, another star host at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, demanded repeatedly on air from one interviewee, Fareed Zakaria, a well-known columnist at Newsweek with a CNN talk show of his own, whether he thought America to be the greatest nation on earth. The dark-skinned Zakaria, a naturalized American from India with a Ph.D. from Harvard, felt compelled to affirm his loyalty for America twice. It is hard to imagine Hannity demanding such a public affirmation of loyalty from anyone with white skin.

So how much is race costing Obama? The problem is that pollsters cannot effectively measure the problem. They call it the “Bradley effect,” first noted during the 1982 governor’s race in California, when Tom Bradley, the then African-American mayor of Los Angeles, lost the race to his white opponent despite leading in pre-election polls throughout the campaign.

The idea behind the “Bradley effect” is that white voters won’t reveal their prejudices to pollsters. Instead, they lie and say that they will vote for the black candidate when, in fact, they have no intention of doing so.
Of course, many people now say that Obama has proven that the “Bradley effect” is a thing of the past. But his continuing difficulties with white working-class voters, who in the primaries went with Hillary Clinton, suggest that, perhaps, the “Bradley effect” is still alive and well.

Younger Americans accept inter-racial relationships as part of the normal social and sexual landscape. Yet, the very speed with which American society has progressed has threatened half of the country, older and mostly white, unable and unwilling to live in the present.

The moderate Republican Party of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Rockefellers has been taken over by a radical crowd, with even Eisenhower’s granddaughter now openly backing Obama. So it boggles many non-Americans’ minds that so many in that great nation still do not wake up to the reality that four more years of Republican rule will further degrade and bankrupt the country.
In any civilized society, ignorance is not illegal and being moralistic is anybody’s inherent privilege. But what is alarming is how private religious beliefs and morals have increasingly shaped the secular agenda of America, whose Founding Fathers had specifically designed the Constitution to separate state and church.
Today’s radical Republican Party represents a large segment of the population that believes that abortions and same-sex marriage are immoral, God sent America to Iraq, and that bailing out Wall Street is “socialism.”

At the Republican Convention in August, the ear-splitting chants of “USA! USA!” and “Drill, baby, drill” sounded like cries of desperation, as well as of defiance against an enemy who threatens American’s divine right to remain supreme. Palin has since identified the enemy, proclaiming of Obama: “This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America.” Whether or not her judgment carries a racist undertone, as many observers believe, the polls indicate that many Americans agree.

Sin-ming Shaw is a former Visiting Fellow in History at Oxford and Princeton universities.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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