Racism Alarms Obama Backers

Kevin Merida, Washington Post, May 13, 2008

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Here’s the worst: In Muncie, a factory town in the east-central part of Indiana, Ross and her cohorts were soliciting support for Obama at malls, on street corners and in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and they ran into “a horrible response,” as Ross put it, a level of anti-black sentiment that none of them had anticipated.

“The first person I encountered was like, ‘I’ll never vote for a black person,’” recalled [Danielle] Ross [a canvasser for Barack Obama], who is white and just turned 20. “People just weren’t receptive.”

For all the hope and excitement 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.

The contrast between the large, adoring crowds Obama draws at public events and the gritty street-level work to win votes is stark. The candidate is largely insulated from the mean-spiritedness that some of his foot soldiers deal with away from the media spotlight.

Meeting cruel reaction

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Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, said she, too, came across “a lot of racism” when campaigning for Obama in Pennsylvania. One Pittsburgh union organizer told her he would not vote for Obama because he is black, and a white voter, she said, offered this frank reason for not backing Obama: “White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people.”

Obama campaign officials say such incidents are isolated, that the experience of most volunteers and staffers has been overwhelmingly positive.

The campaign released this statement in response to questions about encounters with racism: “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.”

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On Election Day in Kokomo, 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, according to Obama campaign staffers.

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Vandalism, bomb threats

The bigotry has gone beyond words. In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. 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.”

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Obama has not spoken much about racism during this campaign. He has sought to emphasize connections among Americans rather than divisions. He shrugged off safety concerns that led to early Secret Service protection and has told black senior citizens who worry that racists will do him harm: Don’t fret. Earlier in the campaign, a 68-year-old woman in Carson City, Nev., voiced concern that the country was not ready to elect an African American president.

“Will there be some folks who probably won’t vote for me because I am black? Of course,” Obama said, “just like there may be somebody who won’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman or wouldn’t vote for John Edwards because they don’t like his accent. But the question is, ‘Can we get a majority of the American people to give us a fair hearing?’”

Skilled at bridging divides

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For the most part, Obama campaign workers say, the 2008 election cycle has been exhilarating. On the ground, the Obama campaign is being driven by youngsters, many of whom are imbued with an optimism undeterred by racial intolerance. “We’ve grown up in a different world,” says Danielle Ross. Field offices are staffed by 20-somethings who hold positions—state director, regional field director, field organizer—that are typically off limits to newcomers to presidential politics.

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In a letter to the editor published in a local paper, Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball explained his support of Hillary Clinton this way: “Barack Hussein Obama and all of his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don’t know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can’t convince me that some of that didn’t rub off on him.

“No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office.”

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Racial attitudes difficult to measure

Pollsters have found it difficult to accurately measure racial attitudes, as some voters are unwilling to acknowledge the role that race plays in their thinking. But some are not. Susan Dzimian, a Clinton supporter who owns residential properties, said outside a polling location in Kokomo that race was a factor in how she viewed Obama. “I think if it was somebody other than him, I’d accept it,” she said of a black candidate. “If Colin Powell had run, I would be willing to accept him.”

The previous evening, Dondra Ewing was driving the neighborhoods of Kokomo, looking to turn around voters like Dzimian. Ewing, 47, is a chain-smoking middle school guidance counselor, a black single mother of two and one of the most fiercely vigilant Obama volunteers in Kokomo, which was once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. On July 4, 1923, Kokomo hosted the largest Klan gathering in history—an estimated 200,000 followers flocked to a local park. But these are not the 1920s, and Ewing believes she can persuade anybody to back Obama. Her mother, after all, was the first African American elected at-large to the school board in a community that is 10 percent black.

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