Internal polling in the McCain operation reportedly shows the candidate continuing to lose ground, both in battleground states and in states long understood to be safe for the campaign. States that voted for Bush in the 2004 campaign are now being aggressively targeted by the Obama campaign, including: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. McCain pulled staff and resources out of Michigan this week amid rumors the campaign may be pulling of Pennsylvania this coming week.McCain’s team has decided that its focus on the senator’s biography and war hero/POW/maverick image is insufficient to close a growing gap with Obama. The campaign is also keen to move the discussion away from the economy, an issue that they feel strongly favors Obama. They’re going to do this by going with one hundred percent negative advertising, by raising issues that [they feel] speak to voters’ concerns about Barack Obama’s character and associations. Here’s the bottom line: they’re gonna play the race card.
Guess who coming to dinner, America? Just as the Sydney Portier movie by that name forty years ago challenged families to confront their attitudes about interracial dating, the Obama candidacy has made the country take a long hard look at the realities of racism in the 21st Century.
And the reality isn’t pretty. The countryside has been flooded with emails spreading rumors designed to play upon people’s fears and prejudices. We’re not talking about the tin-foil hat set; these are our relatives, friends and neighbors.
A quick visit to the rumor debunking web site Snopes.com illuminates most commonly retold deceits; a search [Obama rumors] at the Urban Legends web site produces 56, 400 results. These modern day dispatches are rife with distortions and code words for closet racists to hide behind: “secret Muslim”, “married to a black-power radical”, “would favor blacks over whites”, “refuses the to wear the flag pin”, ad naseum.
A CBS/.New York Times poll (July 2008) discloses that 24% of white voters think the country “isn’t ready” for a black president; only 5% admit that they couldn’t actually vote for a black candidate. While Obama campaign has downplayed stories about racial hostility on the campaign trail, this story, as told at Salon.com by Joan Walsh, pretty well sums it up:
When Kentucky Representative Ben Chandler endorsed Barack Obama, over 500 phone calls flooded his office, the vast majority of them using the word “nigger.” Chandler’s aides (who were white) went home shaken, crying, in utter disbelief. They didn’t think racism still existed.
Now. Sugarcoat it all you want. Call it “Appalachian culture” call it whatever you want, but make no mistake about it, it is racism.
At the September, 2008 meeting of a conservative political forum (Value Voters Summit) attendees were snapping up “Obama Waffles” boxes for $10 each at a booth, while Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney spoke nearby. The boxes were packaged to play off the old image of Aunt Jemima, with Obama portrayed staring at a plate of waffles and smiling. The inside top flap featured the candidate in Arab-like headdress, lest any of the 2100 activists from 44 states be inclined to forget the closet racists’ favorite rumor that he is a follower of Islam. On the back of the box, Obama was depicted in Mexican dress, including a sombrero, with a recipe for “Open Border Fiesta Waffles” that says it can serve “4 or more illegal aliens.” The recipe included a tip: “While waiting for these zesty treats to invade your home, why not learn a foreign language?” (The boxes were withdrawn for sale on the last day of the conference following stories about them in the news media.)
It bears repeating: “…call it whatever you want, but make no mistake about it, it is racism”.
Obama’s had an easy time appealing to white progressives because he doesn’t demand they admit their own racism — they get to blame others for that, as in, “At least I’m not like those people in…”. And one of the tenets of the campaign has been to meticulously avoid the race issue. Yet Barack Obama, with every advantage has run only slightly ahead of John McCain. He has built a first class operation, raised record sums, and moved millions with his message of change. McCain’s had difficulties with his own party and the media, lacks discipline and charisma, and is running his campaign in the shadow of an economic crisis that an overwhelming majority of voters blame on the Republican Party.
The GOP strategists know that this contest is close only because of innate racism. They’re seeking to reach out to the win the hearts and minds of white voters who don’t believe or want to admit they are racists. Racism is not something people are born with; it’s learned behavior, often passed along (overtly or not) from those who we love and cherish the most. Confronting racial attitudes is difficult with these voters because their perception of any questioning/questioner of their values leads them to believe that somehow their cherished notions of family are being attacked.
The challenge to progressives at this juncture will be battling the prejudices played upon by the McCain campaign without making its intended recipients feel threatened. This will be a person-to-person kind of struggle that must take place with out adopting the tactics of exclusion. Picket signs at the local GOP campaign headquarters decrying their racism are a sign that those who are manipulating this are winning this battle.
One of the best essays published on this dynamic comes from blogger Maggie Jochild:
For those who choose not to fight internal racism on any level, they have to stay mad. Mad covers up the fear. It also shortens life spans. I mean yeah, depression kills, but not as fast as cardiac disease. Being chronically angry and hostile is a coronary risk factor that ranks right up there with smoking and lack of exercise. On some scales, it’s worse than having high cholesterol. It plays hob with our adrenaline systems and we wear out fast, like an engine with the timing set too high.
And being mad in a public way requires continual escalation to keep people in the game. That’s why right wing radio gets worse every year, more overt, more dangerous: It’s the only way they can keep people from numbing out, from losing listeners. It’s like pornography or junk food: Once you give up on human reality, you have to keep feeding the addiction of substitute reality.
Talking about the process of change, she goes on to say: “In most instances, however, real change is gradual, sloppy, shifts back and forth like a smoker trying to quit, and arises almost entirely from a one-on-one connection with another human being. We are hard-wired to change when we are trusted and believed in, not when we are shamed and vilified. Go figure, huh?”
Forty years ago, at the height of the protest movement, tensions between activists and trade unionists were at the breaking point when it came to the racial divide. Now trade unionists are taking the point in this struggle. The powerful video of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka’s moving defense of Obama against racial attacks has gone viral in the past few days. He speaks quite eloquently to the issue at hand:
“I don’t think we should be out there pointing fingers in peoples’ faces and calling them racist; instead we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes – if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers – there’s only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who’s on their side… only one candidate who’s going to stand up for their families… only one candidate who’s earned their votes… and his name is Barack Obama!”
It’s easy to feel anger (or shame) (or guilt) about racism or racist behavior. There are millions of justifiable reasons to hate the haters. But, given that we are not currently engaged in a struggle where the opposition forces are overt in their actions, the only way this particular conflict can be won is on an individual level.
As you listen to the tsunami of political trash talking sweeping the country over the next few weeks, realize that within this dim witted assault on reason lies a golden opportunity: the McCain campaign is giving us the gift of opening up this conversation. If we can avoid the obvious temptation to turn it into a shouting match, progressives can reach out and touch people on a one-to-basis, inoculating them against future attempts to play upon their fears and prejudices.