Will whites vote for Barack Obama? | St. Louis Public Radio

Will whites vote for Barack Obama?

Aug 15, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 15, 2008 - Danny Sanders says he has seen the face of racism first hand.

"My dad was from Arkansas, and he hated black people," said the retired St. Louis baker and Vietnam veteran, who was fishing for catfish this week at Carondelet Park. "And a long time ago, I used to feel the same way.

"But I have changed.

"People do change, you know?"

At the same time, Sanders, who is white, said, he knows exactly what will be in the minds of many of his friends and family members as they step into voting booths this November to decide on America's next president.

Many of them, he said, "are going to be running scared, and they'll go right for (John) McCain because (Barack Obama's) black.

"If people tell you there ain't no prejudice in this world, they're blind, man. 'Cause you know there is."

More than 140 years after the end of the Civil War, four decades after the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, America continues to wrestle for control of its own heart.

For the first time in our history, we will be asked to choose not just between Democrat and Republican, youth or experience, but also between black and white.

Just how big a part race will play in the upcoming election depends on whom you ask: "Some people won't ever change," said Sanders.

"People I talk to, they don't think race is an issue," said Brad Caby, an unemployed airport ramp worker and Desert Storm veteran from Pevely, who sat on a park bench just 50 yards from Sanders.

"This election is about whoever can bring gas prices down and bring our troops home and make the economy a little better for Americans," said Caby, who is white.

Richard T. Middleton IV, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he has no doubt that America has undergone a transformation in recent decades. The question remains: How significant has it been?

"Yes, it's a step forward," Middleton, who's African American, said of Obama's presumptive presidential nomination. "Yes, it's a positive sign.

"But I wouldn't want to put it out of context.

"We're talking about a select group of the population who have gone out and cast their votes for Barack Obama. We're not talking about taking the temperature of the entire nation. It's not a highly accurate representation of our country in terms of attitudes about racial issues."

He wants to be optimistic, he said. But it is difficult.

He said there is no doubt that the overt racism of days past is ending.

You don't hear the worst, most racist epithets any more, he said; rather the labels have become more subtle but potentially just as damaging. "Instead, you hear, 'he's exotic; he's not one of us.'

"I anticipate that things are probably going to get a little uglier the closer we get to November."

Recent national polls on the issue of race and Obama's presumptive nomination shed some light on America in the first decade of the 21st century -- and the often different perspectives of the races.

A New York Times poll in mid-July asked about the state of race relations in this country. "Generally good" said 55 percent of white respondents but only 29 percent of black respondents. "Generally bad" said 34 percent of the white respondents but 60 percent of black respondents.  

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in mid-June asked Americans whether they believed Obama's candidacy would do more to help or hurt race relations in this country, or not make much of a difference.

Thirty-eight percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks who were polled said his candidacy would help.

Seventeen percent of whites, or about 1 in 6 questioned, thought his candidacy would hurt race relations. Eight percent of blacks felt that way.

That same poll, though, illustrates that Americans believe that race relations have improved over time. Four percent in that poll said they believed race relations were "excellent," 47 percent "good," 36 percent "not so good" and 12 percent "poor."  A similar poll in 1992 said  that 2 percent labeled race relations "excellent," 30 percent "good," 45 percent "not so good," and 21 percent "poor." 

Recent polls on voter preference have indicated a near dead heat between McCain and Obama.

But Saint Louis University political scientist and an authority on polling, Ken Warren, says the accuracy of such polls is in question.

People responding to particularly sensitive topics, such as questions relating to race and religion, have a greater tendency to lie on their answers, he said.

"How many fibbers are there? That's what we don't know," he said.

But will hard-core racial bigotry play a role in the upcoming election?

"There is no question it is going to present a problem," Warren, who's white, said.

Problem with deep roots

There is little doubt that racial intolerance continues to be a significant problem in America.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national organization that monitors hate groups and hate crimes, reports that in 2007 the U. S. was home to 888 "active hate groups" including 29 in Missouri and 23 in Illinois. Of the Missouri groups, the center described 14 as either "neo-Confederate" or associated with the Ku Klux Klan, both white organizations known to have strong anti-black leanings.

The center also has logged what it calls 239 "hate crimes," many involving whites against blacks, through the first six months of 2008.

More recent incidents include the spray-painting of racial epithets and anti-Barack Obama sentiments on Orlando, Fla., city vehicles and the arrest of a 17-year-old white youth for shouting racial slurs and threatening to shoot a group of black teens in Vermont. The center says the youth was allegedly a member of a hate group.

Nowhere, perhaps, is anti-black racism as blatant and ugly as on the Internet, which has become a haven for individuals and groups hoping to spread their beliefs.

Recent internet searches found a site devoted to literally dozens of unprintable anti-black "jokes" and another site that claims to be a step-by-step guide on how to own and treat black slaves.

Still another site shows a photographically altered photo of Obama in a Buckwheat Afro and oversized teeth, with a tub of fried chicken and watermelon in front of him. The caption: "Lawdy, I sho' loves campainnin!"

Just how reflective these groups and websites are of mainstream America is anybody's guess.

Robert Tabscott, an author and historian on the legacy and struggle of blacks in America, says their appeal may be wider than most people believe.

Tabscott, founder and president of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Society, said he often drinks coffee with well-educated, successful St. Louisans who make no apologies for their beliefs. He recalls one telling him that he was tired of hearing Abraham Lincoln praised for freeing black slaves.

Despite the perceived gains of the civil rights movement, Tabscott, who's white, said, "the racism never went away."

When it comes to the upcoming election, Tabscott does not hide his pessimism for voters making their decisions solely on the character and policies of the presidential candidates.

There continues to be, he said, "this intrinsic fear among white males of black superiority. The emasculation of the black man has been under way for so long."

Whites see the black man as a threat, Tabscott says, and there is a feeling that "we have to protect against him." It is a feeling, he said, that is pervasive "in the boiler room and the locker room."

Largely because of that, he says, he doubts whether Obama -- or any black man -- can win the White House.

"We've made progress under the law, but in the human heart, probably not so much."

In the heart of the heart of the country

Missouri, traditionally seen as a key to presidential elections, may have a significant say on who ultimately will become this country's next leader.

In the presidential preference primary in February, Obama claimed a narrow popular vote victory over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. But it was not a statewide mandate for the senator from Illinois.

Had it not been for overwhelming victory margins in the St. Louis and Kansas City urban areas, in fact, Clinton would have crushed Obama. Of the state's 114 counties, Obama won only five of them, plus the city of St. Louis. The state's heavily white rural areas favored Clinton by a wide margin. In Washington County, she beat Obama 75 to 21 percent. In St. Francois County, it was 70 to 26 percent. And in Iron County, the margin was 71 to 24 percent.

If the Obama campaign wants to beat McCain in November, organizers know it will have to somehow pick up crucial votes in these outstate areas -- and that's one reason the campaign has opened a number of offices in these areas.

Recently, Obama spent a day campaigning in the heartland of the state, in Springfield, Rolla and the small Franklin County town of Union, which had not seen a presidential campaign visit since Harry Truman.

Last weekend, campaign volunteers fanned out throughout rural Missouri, holding 45 canvassing events in 28 rural areas of the state.

Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, said this week he had heard of no racially charged comments from Missouri voters as campaign workers went door to door stumping for their candidate.

"The reports we have gotten are that people have been extremely receptive," Cardetti told the Beacon.

If that's true, it appears to be a far cry from the reception Obama volunteers received earlier this year in Indiana. A Washington Post story in May documented several incidents of racial epithets and what the newspaper called "raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season."

A union divided

Two weeks after Obama's visit to Union, several white area residents said they were surprised that the candidate would come to the heavily white town of about 9,000.

"I thought it was pretty bold of Obama to show up at the park down here," said Curtis Ellison, a longtime Republican who works as a map maker at the Franklin County courthouse. "You know, there are four hunting rifles in three out of the four homes in every house surrounding that park."

Ellison said he holds no prejudice, but added that some areas of Franklin County have a reputation for being less than tolerant when it comes to blacks.

A coworker, Ellison said, sends him e-mails disparaging of Obama. The e-mails are not blatantly racist, he says, but "I've heard her say he's the anti-Christ, kind of jokingly," or "a secret Muslim.

"I don't know if any of that has any foundation in truth."

Willard Hoemann, a barber at the Town & Country Barber Shop in downtown Union, said he has heard the comments about Obama around town. He estimates that race may be a significant factor in the elections for 10 percent of the people in the county.

As for his decision, Hoemann said he hopes he will cast his vote purely for that candidate he believes will do the best job. But he is not so sure.

"I say that, but in the back of my mind, I don't know," he said. "I try not to be racist, yet on the other hand. ... It's tough not to be a little bit racist. Very tough."

Bruce Stalcup, who is facing a layoff in October after 25 years with Chrysler, said he is an enthusiastic supporter of Obama. He also said he is tired of the racist attitudes of many of those in Franklin County, a county that he calls "a kind of microcosm of the entire country.

"It's the same old crap," he said. "It's kind of like a wink-wink, good old boys' club. You know what I'm saying?

"When there's nobody around, they're going to (use) every 'n' word they can. And they think that's acceptable." He said a friend recounted a story of a neighbor who recently was offering his opinion of the elections and remarked that "I grew up when they belonged in the back of the bus and they still belong in the back of the bus."

"It runs deep," Stalcup said. "I wish he (Obama) would come back here and hold up a mirror to all these folks and let them know this is what they really look like to the rest of the world."

Making history

Jonathan Smith, assistant professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University, said people should not underestimate the historic importance of Obama's candidacy.

"The progress had to be real and had to survive in order for us to be sitting in a position where Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee of a major political party, and currently the favorite for actually winning the election," said Smith, who is lack.

"I wouldn't have believed this could have happened eight months ago, before the Iowa primary."

But Smith, like many others, says he is less sure that Obama's success represents a fundamental change in America's attitude about race.

"I don't know if it was a change in race relations as much as the overwhelming national assessment of the Bush administration," he said.

In some ways, he says, it seems that Obama has somehow been able to transcend race.

"He's the candidate all of us can see as being a member of our close family circle," he said.

While Smith said he is buoyed by Obama's rise, he remains cautious. The future of race relations in the country, he said, may depend on Obama's ultimate success.

If Obama loses in November, he said he would view it as a step backward for racial tolerance in America.

"We'll be in a much worse place than we are now," he said.

His reasoning, he said, is simple:

"It's hard to envision that people who are so profoundly dissatisfied with the direction of the country would say, 'well, let's try it for another four years, or another eight years.

"The only way that is going to happen is for there to be a fundamental anti-black backlash. At this moment, I don't know what else to pin it on."