Marcus Baram, ABC News, May 27, 2008
With Sen. Barack Obama on the verge of becoming the first African-American to receive a major party’s presidential nomination, racism and potential security issues are emerging as factors in the race to the White House.
Fenn [Peter Fenn, adjunct professor of political management at George Washington University] says that he was catching a flight at Dulles International Airport last year when an African-American woman told him that Obama shouldn’t run. “She said, ‘They’re going to kill him.’ African-Americans are more worried about it.”
And polls bear out that perception. Fifty-nine percent of Americans (and 83 percent of African-Americans) said they were concerned “that someone might attempt to physically harm Barack Obama if he’s the Democratic nominee for president,” according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from March 2. Twenty-four percent of those polled said they were “very concerned” about that possibility.
The latest controversy centered on a depiction of Obama in the cross hairs of a rifle used that appeared on the cover of Georgia’s Roswell Beacon newspaper. The controversy focused on the image, though the story, which included interviews with several white supremacists threatened by Obama’s candidacy, reflected a deeper reality.
Thomas Stevenson, a carpenter who lives near Atlanta, told the newspaper, “Some idiot out there’s going to put a bullet in that silver-tongued devil and then there’ll be a race war. There are some in our movement who are preparing for war, [even] praying for it.”
After receiving information that caused him concern over Obama’s safety in April 2007, Sen. Dick Durbin said that he approached congressional leaders to discuss Obama’s security situation. “I knew the crowds were large & but some of the other information given to us, unfortunately, I think, raised a concern among many of [Obama’s] friends,” Durbin told reporters.
And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff soon authorized the protection, which consists of three shifts working eight hours each to cover Obama 24 hours a day.
The real possibility that an African-American could win the White House in November, along with the anonymity of the Web, which lends itself to expressing extreme views, has galvanized a certain segment of the population, explains John G. Geer, political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
“Is Obama being black raising security issues, the answer is, unfortunately, yes,” he says. “Because there are more people out there, hate groups who are going to make certain kinds of statements and claims that will alert the Secret Service to be on their guard.”
“There is a portion of the population who will be very unhappy about Obama, not due to his policies but simply because he’s black, and there will be even more of an increase in these racist views as the general election rolls around.”
In addition to the hate spouted by extremists, race has become an issue for the candidate in other, more subtle ways.
In exit polls taken after the recent West Virginia primary, two in 10 white voters said the race of the candidate was a factor in their vote, second only to the numbers in the exit poll in Mississippi. Sixteen percent of white voters in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky and Oregon say that race was an important factor in their vote, according to an ABC News analysis of exit polls from those states.