But when it comes to race, what is understood? And what is misunderstood?
And how can it be that in 2008—143 years after slavery was abolished, decades after the civil rights movement—an AP-Yahoo News poll could find that racial misgivings could cost Sen. Barack Obama the election?
In search of explanations, two Associated Press reporters—one black, one white—listened to people of both races along Detroit’s divides: Alter Road, which separates the city from the tony Grosse Pointes near Lake St. Clair, and 8 Mile Road, the vast northern border between a mostly black Detroit and its mostly white suburbs.
They found people of both races living just blocks apart who nonetheless spoke of each other like strangers. There was suspicion, contempt—and yet, for many, a desperate hope that Obama’s candidacy might be the final step in America’s long path to racial equality. For whites, their support of Democratic economic policies forces them to confront their racial prejudices.
Whites say their neighbors consider blacks to be violent and solely responsible for problems in the black community.
Blacks say many of their own consider whites to be spoiled and condescending.
But nobody—well, hardly anybody—acknowledged their own prejudices. Both blacks and whites instead blamed “they,” a vague and unaccountable surrogate for their own racial attitudes.
“They” are whites who say Obama is unqualified when they really mean he’s black.
“They” are blacks who say all whites are bigots.
Four of every 10 white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, calling them “lazy,” or “violent” or blaming them for the ills of black America, according to the AP-Yahoo poll. Such surveys draw criticism from whites who say the numbers are exaggerated and from blacks who say the numbers are too low.
Let others argue about the math. Listen while the people of Detroit explain.
“My kids have been called nigger babies. . . . That was from a white family,” says Cherlonda Hampton, a black woman shopping at an outdoor mall on 8 Mile Road.
A petite mother of nine who looks half her 37 years, Hampton says she was harassed by whites while living in suburban Detroit. Feces were smeared on her car. A dead bird was left on a tire. When her child was bitten by a white classmate, the white principal didn’t seem to care.
After a year, Hampton returned to her segregated Detroit neighborhood.
This is an apt place to talk about race in America. Detroit’s population peaked at nearly 2 million in the 1950s and has been on the decline ever since, dropping to less than 1 million in the latest Census figures. Although racial tension isn’t the only cause, the 1967 race riots hastened Detroit’s decline and mandatory school busing a decade later stoked unrest.
Coleman A. Young, the city’s first black mayor and a racially polarizing figure, said before his 1997 death, “No other city in America, no other city in the Western world has lost the population at that rate. And what’s at the root cause of that loss? Economics and race. Or should I say, race and economics?”
White working-class Detroiters fled the city in droves, many to Macomb County and its working-class suburbs north of 8 Mile Road. Detroit’s white-flighters were among the first to be dubbed “Reagan Democrats”—socially conservative, economically progressive, mostly Catholic voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP, in part because Republicans exploited their racial fears.
Their children and grandchildren are just as politically independent—swing voters in a swing county that both Obama and Republican John McCain hope to carry en route to winning Michigan.
And, like the Reagan Democrats of a generation ago, whites in Macomb County today aren’t sure whether to vote their pocketbooks or their prejudices.