Racism on the trail

The Washington Post explores racism encountered by Obama volunteers, something the campaign may have preferred kept quiet, while bloggers on the right see liberal media bias.

By Alex Koppelman
May 13, 2008 9:16PM (UTC)
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On Tuesday, the Washington Post's Kevin Merida reported on a phenomenon that's apparently all too common:

For all the hope and excitement [Barack] Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

Merida writes about several incidents, like one in Kokomo, Ind., where on primary day, "a group of black high school students were holding up Obama signs along U.S. 31, a major thoroughfare. As drivers cruised by, a number of them rolled down their windows and yelled out a common racial slur for African Americans." He also mentions voters who've said they wouldn't vote for Obama because of his race, and an incident in Vincennes, Ind., in which an Obama campaign office was vandalized: "A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: 'Hamas votes BHO' and 'We don't cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright.'"


Incidentally, some of Salon's reporters have heard similar things from voters about their reticence to vote for Obama because of his race -- our Mike Madden has an article up today in which he mentions one voter in West Virginia who said his neighbors "won't go for a black man ... I don't think it's being racist necessarily, they just don't like black people that well." The man added, "The arrogance and all that bothers me more than black, but black is a close second ... Our generation was back when blacks were the back of the bus, and it's hard to change that outlook. I just feel like I couldn't vote for him."

The Post story does lack some context, though. At times it's difficult to tell whether the aggressors in the anecdotes Merida relays are Democrats or Republicans. For all we know, some could just be jerky kids out to prove they're big by saying something shocking and stupid, rather than truly representative of feelings in their larger community.

The article also reports that the Obama camp is hesitant to publicize any of these incidents, and has been quick to play down their importance and emphasize larger racial harmony instead. In a statement, the campaign said:

After campaigning for 15 months in nearly all 50 states, Barack Obama and our entire campaign have been nothing but impressed and encouraged by the core decency, kindness, and generosity of Americans from all walks of life. The last year has only reinforced Senator Obama's view that this country is not as divided as our politics suggest.

Obama's campaign is likely concerned about the way in which some voters might perceive complaints about the racism his supporters have encountered on the trail. With good reason, probably. It would hardly be shocking to see some commentators on the right -- and I'm thinking here specifically of people like Sean Hannity and others on Fox News -- twist such complaints about real examples of racism to make it seem as if Obama were akin to the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who are at this point nearly always depicted on the right as being constant grievance-mongers, even when (one might even argue especially when) they are discussing legitimate issues. A similar narrative about Obama is something some on the right surely wouldn't mind seeing develop, and it's also something the Obama camp would almost certainly rather avoid.

Besides, even bringing the issue of race to the forefront might hurt Obama with some voters. Ben Smith observes, "The fact of the contest is that although Obama said in Philadelphia that we 'cannot afford to ignore' race, his campaign needs it to remain in the background, not the foreground. So he'll be the last one to cry racism -- even when it's clearly, in some places, with some voters, a motivating factor. In a contest about votes, there's no point denouncing those voters, some of them Democrats; all Obama can do is work to replace them with other constituencies."

The reaction to Merida's article from bloggers on the right has been fascinating to read. Their primary feeling, apparently, is that this is just another example of liberal media bias covering for Obama -- and that this proves Democrats are racist. The former sentiment was summed up at the Jawa Report, where one poster headlined his discussion of the article "Obama General Election Strategy Taking Shape" and wrote:

When a story hits this many outlets simultaneously it's pretty clear that there is a coordinated effort to establish a new "meme." This meme: if you're white and vote against Obama, you're an ignorant racist.

This will be a common theme right through the election in November: racism may cost Barack, the post-racial candidate, the election (white racism that is, blacks voting over 90 percent for Obama isn't "racism." It's payback, just like the verdicts in the Reginald Denny case were payback).

This is what decades of affirmative action and racial victimhood politics have done to American society.

Writing at the National Review's Campaign Spot blog, Jim Geraghty said, "The Washington Post picks an interesting day to run a front-page feature story on volunteers for the Obama campaign encountering blatant racism ... the timing of the article, coupled with its relentless portrait of voters driven by ferocious, unmitigated bigotry, certainly feels like a prepared excuse for a blowout loss for Obama tonight."

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey was incensed that the Post didn't mention often enough that the incidents described in the article happened in the context of a Democratic contest, and said, "The media should remember this when it comes to accusations of racism and bigotry later in the general election." He linked to a post at the QandO Blog, where Bruce McQuain had written, "As predictably as sunrise occurring tomorrow, Democrats will start throwing 'racism' around during the general election. When they do, posts like this will remind them that they have absolutely no room to talk."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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