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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Saying race doesn't matter ill serves Obama and America

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sen. Barack Obama is a bi-racial man running for president. Most people label him as African-American. Any way you slice it, some people do not support him solely because of his race. There, I said it.

We seem to tiptoe around this issue despite the evidence. The more heated this presidential bid becomes, the less willing folks are to have complex discussions about the role of race (if you could say we’ve ever been willing). Some claim that the topic “doesn't matter” yet it matters in so many ways it’s exhausting.

If Obama brings it up, he’s playing the race card. If others bring it up, they are being racist. Can we get over ourselves, please? It’s just not that simple.

Race is a powerful social construct. We recreate it and participate in it daily. We know that biologically there are more DNA differences within racial groups compared to across groups, yet many still believe that African-Americans are inherently better in sports due to a genetic advantage, or that Asian-Americans are genetically predisposed to be math geniuses. So, it should come to no surprise that race is influencing people’s perceptions of Obama.

Earlier in the presidential season, the media kept asking, “Is America ready for a black president?” If I missed a resolution to this question, please let me know. My take is that we assumed the answer was “yes,” given Obama’s performance in the primaries, yet we continue to ignore all the evidence to the contrary. Some might say that it’s not worth giving attention to such a dated perspective, but I think we must, given the gravity of this election. It’s not dated; it’s present day.

In a recent Washington Post article, Kevin Merida discussed the racially charged experiences of Obama’s campaign workers. Some might argue the reactions are simply a function of people being so passionate about the issues and the importance of this election. However racial slurs aren’t warranted when you disagree on health care.

Why haven’t these experiences been made more public? I think one reason is that the media want to believe that these examples are exceptions, a few bad apples. I think another reason is that the Obama campaign is working hard not to make race too central -- smart move. I believe that if the campaign openly talked about all of the discrimination it has encountered, the general response would be disbelief and assumptions that staffers were overreacting or being too sensitive. To win this election, Obama needs America to believe its own fantasy: that we are ready for a president who is something other than a white male.

The recent primaries highlight the racial divide. Clinton’s remarks after her recent wins along with the media analyses have stressed that Obama struggles most to secure the support of working-class whites. If we stop to deconstruct this assertion, we can see another way in which the social construct of race is alive and well.

I don’t purport to know what is going on in the heads’ of white voters nor do I believe they are monolithic in their thinking. However, I do know that, if we look at history, the intersection of race and class runs deep.

Throughout history, marginalized groups have been pitted against each other. As a country, we only seem to be able to hold one civil right in mind at a time. I can see how the focus of social change in recent years could leave some working-class and poor whites feeling forgotten and less important than people of color -- for whom it has been en vogue to advocate for. No wonder some marginalized whites would much rather see a white female at the helm than an African-American male.

Let me be clear, a true leader would not separate the issues that affect Americans by race or class. A true leader would recognize the interconnection of various isms and advocate in ways that increase access for all. Given John Edwards’ recent endorsement of Obama, it will be interesting to see if working-class white voters will translate that gesture into an assurance that Obama “gets it” -- i.e., sees the connections and is not just a candidate who will focus on race.

Some people will not vote for Obama simply because of his race. As much as we might long for that statement to be false, merely stating the opposite won’t make it so. And claiming that it’s only a small group of people who feel this way is a disservice that clouds the larger issue. Race plays a role in the dynamics of this election, and the more we fail to talk about it honestly as an influential part of the process, the further we get away from being able to disentangle the stereotypes and misperceptions fueling the fire.

It is complicated. I just hope we can push ourselves to have the complex conversations rather than shy away from the realities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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