The first week in October found the Republican message peppered with not-very-subtle code meant to enliven the racist vote. Sarah Palin told us that Barack Obama “is not a man who sees America like you and I see America.” When she invoked Joe Sixpack, she was drawing a line in the dirt.
There have been and will be all kinds of attempts to suppress the black vote, including Waller County officials’ efforts last spring to cut down on voting by Prairie View A&M students.
And the “Bradley Effect” (named for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley) may kick in, with votes for a black candidate running a few percentage points lower than polls indicated because those polled are afraid of being perceived as racist.
But what are the deeper currents that centuries of racial injustice and division have brought to this election? To help me sort this out, I called the Rev. Gerald Britt, vice president for public policy of Central Dallas Ministries.
“When you look at Barack’s background,” Britt said, “there is something to his story [raised by a white mother and grandparents, lived in a foreign country, earned a Harvard law degree, worked as a community organizer] that doesn’t sync with what many white Americans think they know about black people. All of that is a construct that is hard for many white Americans to wrap their arms around. It makes him ‘exotic,’ ‘mysterious’ and ‘dangerous.’ It doesn’t fit the stereotype. They think there has to be something stereotypical that he’s hiding.
“In this context, he can never be as black as Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin can be female. If he is, he becomes frightening. It’s a tightrope African Americans always have to walk. He can’t have an African-American agenda. He can’t be a black candidate. That makes people suspicious.”
“It is nuanced,” Britt told me, “but it’s a little more concrete than people like to admit. It doesn’t fit neatly into the box people want it to fit into. The New Yorker article with the caricature on the cover-that gave a balanced view, good and bad, of his time in Chicago as a Chicago politician. If he were a white Chicago politician, you wouldn’t think it was mysterious, dark and dangerous.
“Because he didn’t come up with a black agenda or discuss racial issues [in the debate], people figure he’s hiding a black agenda. That’s the latent fear white America has about him. We have less to find out about Barack than about John Kerry. Obama’s been vetted for the last four or five years. He has two autobiographies; 18 million people said yes to his candidacy for the nomination. That’s still not enough. All that has to do with a not-so-sophisticated view of race,” Britt said.
Racism depends on the ability to reduce the complexity of each individual to a two-dimensional cutout. Just like 21st-century America, Obama defies that kind of reductionism.
Obama’s candidacy is based on the premise that what unites us is stronger than what divides us, “that working together,” as he said in Philadelphia, “we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
McCain and Palin are apparently banking on division. The Republican ticket has chosen to appeal to the worst instincts of some Americans and to provide an opportunity for latent racism in this country to come out of hiding.
In a few weeks, we will find out if the American electorate says, “Not this time.”