Monday, November 3, 2008

Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Racism's Door

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm still worried about whether American racism - overt and latent - might be strong enough to tip this election to McCain? Frank Rich thinks it won't, according to his last column in the New York Times:
Well, there are racists in western Pennsylvania, as there are in most pockets of our country. But despite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election. In the latest New York Times/CBS News and Pew national polls, Obama is now pulling even with McCain among white men, a feat accomplished by no Democratic presidential candidate in three decades, Bill Clinton included. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey finds age doing more damage to McCain than race to Obama.
But then the Columbus Dispatch thinks race could be enough to drag Obama to defeat in my neck of the woods. The Dispatch may be deluded enough to endorse McCain but it's in close proximity to the various Ohio bellwethers. As am I, minus the delusion (or so I hope?).

Here's my encounter with racism on the campaign trail. It's enough to make me plenty nervous, even as it stokes my hope for slow, slow change.

The first day I went out knocking on doors for Obama, I met a frayed-looking middle-aged couple enjoying the mild sunny Sunday afternoon on their porch. They were the very first people I found at home as a freshly minted canvasser. They lived in a neighborhood of modest homes built in the 1950s. I wasn't out in the impoverished countryside; I was among young families and retired professors.

The man said he was genuinely unsure who'd get his vote. And so I sat with them for a good half hour, asking what issues worried them.

It didn't take long to unearth a major concern. The woman said she planned to vote for John McCain. But even if she didn't ...

"I have to tell you something," she said. "I'm not racist." Long, long pause. "But I'd have a problem voting for a black man for president."

Before we were sent out to canvass, we'd been warned that we'd encounter open racism sooner or later. I still wasn't prepared for it in my maiden experience as a canvasser.

And so I circumnavigated. I asked them how they felt about the economy, which had just begun its meltdown. I inquired how they felt about the current president. Once they'd expressed their deep dismay at the status quo, I wondered out loud if they might want to take a chance on the new guy, even if they had to go outside their comfort level.

I wasn't trying to convince the wife, who'd made her allegiances clear. I was just trying to gently nudge the husband back into his self-declared role of canceling out his mate's vote.

But she was the one who eventually moved - not into the Democratic column, but possibly into a different sort of self-awareness.

"You know," she mused, "Maybe I am a little bit racist after all."

I tell this story not to open her up to mockery. In the late September sunlight, the day before my birthday, I took her reluctant but unforced confession as a gift, the more precious for its fragility.

As I said a day ago, canvassing is very much like teaching. You plant a seed. You hope for gentle rains. You never know for sure what will sprout and grow and blossom.

And then there are people who dash your hope altogether. My younger son, the Tiger, is having some trouble with a kid in his kindergarten class who's hitting and calling names. About half his classmates are also being bullied. The insults include "stinky black," aimed at one of the Tiger's friends who is half Latina, half African-American, coupled with taunts that "Obama is stinky."

Kids don't make this shit up on their own. I don't know if he's getting it from his parents - at least theoretically, it could come from other relatives - and I'd rather give the benefit of the doubt than judge them prematurely. Whatever the source, he's sure not inventing racism out of thin air.

Here's what we're up against. The Columbus Dispatch reported on the ubiquity of such attitudes a few weeks back:
Like most other Democrats in southeastern Ohio, Hendrickson, a single mother of two struggling to support her family as a waitress, voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the primary.

With Clinton out, Hendrickson says she plans to vote for Republican John McCain. She doesn't trust Democrat Barack Obama.

"I just don't feel comfortable with him," said Hendrickson, 36, of neighboring Portsmouth. "I don't think he's being honest about what he's going to do."

The political landscape of the 14-county southeastern region, a swing area of Ohio where chronic unemployment and poverty have left many feeling forgotten, would seem to favor Democrats.

But an uneasiness with Obama prevails in Appalachia, and for many it comes down to race.

"I'll be voting for a Republican for the first time in my life," Jeff Justice, a 46-year-old ironworker, said as he finished his lunch at Hickie's.

Asked why, Justice, a white former Wheelersburg resident now living in Florida, didn't hesitate.

"He's black."
But as the economy has tanked, people's willingness to set aside their prejudices has seemingly grown. At Salon, James Hanrahan suggests that racists fear lots of thing even more than they fear black people. As Sean Quinn reported at FiveThirtyEight, a canvasser in Pennsylvania witnessed the following exchange:
So a canvasser goes to a woman's door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she's planning to vote for. She isn't sure, has to ask her husband who she's voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, "We're votin' for the n***er!"

Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: "We're voting for the n***er."
It may be cold comfort to those whose retirement savings have evaporated over the past few weeks. But if tomorrow's vote is close, we can reasonably assume it will have been the economic meltdown that pushed bigots into voting for a black man. If Obama does well enough to claim a mandate, we can still assume "it's the economy, stupid."

Either way, these elemental fears of economic survival are surely multiplying the number of people who call themselves - with a dose of charming self-mockery, to be sure - "Rednecks for Obama." I took this photo a couple of blocks from my house, but I've seen more than one similar sign since then, including one deep in the woods while canvassing yesterday.

By the way, I'm not at all suggesting that self-proclaimed "rednecks" are racists. Only that the current crises are inspiring them to vote for a candidate who - for reasons of race, yes, but a host of other reasons as well - doesn't look like their typical guy.

I am suggesting that if "rednecks" are turning out for Obama, all of us who back him had better do the same.

A new, kinder chapter in American history just might begin today.

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