Sunday, October 12, 2008

Election 2008 - The "Race" Factor

Here is a recent NY Times Article by Charles Kristof on the role of racism in the presidential election. The comments on the article are here. I haven't read all the way through the comments, but the first one starts with "Duh." On the one hand, that's correct. The article states the plainly obvious: hidden, unconscious racism will play a huge role in this election. On the other hand, I think Mr. Kristof did a service by reminding us of something that is so obvious, we often don't notice it. Our buried racism is something we should keep in mind every time we have to make choices between people. I think it is particularly important for those of us who make hiring decisions to keep this in mind. It is, of course, critical when we make voting decisions.

I know people who will not vote for Senator Obama primarily because of his race and/or religion. Some candidly admit, without apology, that they won't vote for him because he is black. Some won't vote for him because they think he is secretly a Muslim; it is is unacceptable to their evangelical world view for America to be led by a non-Christian. I think a lot of the people who complain about Obama's "lack of experience" or his alleged association with terrorists or his affiliation with the radical pastor are all essentially saying "he's black" or "he's Muslim." On the other hand, there are no doubt blacks who will vote for him solely because he is one of them. Perhaps some Muslims will vote for him for the same reason. (If I were Muslim in America, I'd vote for Obama if only because I know he has Muslims in his family and probably does not refer to Muslims as "towel heads" or "terrorists" all the time, like a lot of white Americans.)

We all do it a hundred times a day. We classify people based on their similarities and differences to us. We like to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. Life is easier that way.

We also like people to stay in their "place." That has a lot to do with racism, also. In fact the idea that people should stay in their "place" probably arose out of the Jim Crow laws in the South, which essentially created an apartheid state. There were places blacks could go, and places they could not. The latter were essentially all places where white people went. Blacks who tested the boundaries were considered "uppity" because they didn't "know their place."

The notion of keeping your place expanded. Women's "place" was traditionally in the home, so the women who pushed for women's suffrage, birth control rights or other feminist issues have been considered "uppity" as well as "bitches." Now that most households need two incomes, women's "place" has expanded to the workplace, but they still are not supposed to be too strong, too powerful or too ambitious. Strong, powerful and ambitious men are seen as "successful" and "sexy". Strong, powerful and ambitious women are, just, well, bitches. That one bites Hilliary Clinton in the ass every time she opens her mouth and is, I believe, the number one reason she is not on the Democratic ticket.

It is interesting that Gov. Palin has managed to escape the "bitch" label despite the "Sarah Barracuda" reputation. How? I think it is because she plays down the ambition and power part. She talks about her family, she plays up the fact that she's a mother and wife, first and foremost. She talks tough, but she winks to let you know she's only going to be tough on the "bad" guys. Her "aw shucks" demeanor belies her ambition and agenda. She gets away with it because Americans tend to accept sound-bites as reality and they do not look beneath the surface. Personally I'd rather deal with a bitch who talks straight and tells me what she really is up to rather than a "lady" who will say one thing and do something else. But that's just me. Americans like their women (even their working women) to behave more like Palin than like Clinton.

The fact is, race and gender will play enormous roles in this election. Religion will play every bit as big a role. The right wing folks would vote for McCain regardless of who the Democratic candidate is.

All the rest of us have to manage to get past our buried, unconscious, hidden, unknown prejudices that would prevent us from voting for Obama. Then -- harder still -- lots of people who ordinarily would not bother to vote because they don't think their votes matter, need to get up off their asses and go to the polls.

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