Playing the Race Card

Posted: Oct 12, 2008 12:01 AM
Playing the Race Card

The race card is back.

After Tuesday night's debate, Washington party-crossover dean David Gergen announced it was "too early" to declare victory for Democrat Barack Obama, not because the election is a month away, but because "Obama is black."

After GOP running mate Sarah Palin criticized Obama for seeing America as "imperfect enough that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their country," an Associated Press story suggested that "her attack was unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret."

A racially tinged subtext? Palin may have exaggerated about Obama "palling around" with William Ayers, a founder of the Vietnam War-era Weather Underground, which was responsible for a number of bombings across the country including quite possibly a 1970 explosion that left a San Francisco police officer dead. I don't think Obama and Ayers were pals so much as co-believers of a trendy left-leaning and standards-hostile philosophy on education.

And, Ayers is white. So it's hard to figure out how the AP writer construed Palin's remarks as "racially tinged," unless you see race in absolutely everything.

The "subtext" -- to borrow the word -- of the race-baiting charge is that if Obama should lose, then it will be because of racist white voters, who misled polling organizations by not saying that they would not vote for the Democratic nominee simply because he is black.

You could not watch cable news last week without hearing about "the Bradley effect" -- a term spawned after Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost the California gubernatorial election to state Attorney General George Deukmejian in 1982 by one point, despite pre-election polls that showed Bradley, who was black, had a seven-point lead.

But "the Bradley effect" was not the election-turning factor that some people saw. As Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll explained, a number of factors, including a higher-than-expected turnout of gun owners, led to the discrepancy in that 1982 race. DiCamillo believes that some white voters said they were undecided even though they had decided to vote for Deukmejian, and those undecided white voters were key in the undecided pool because most black voters had made up their minds to vote for Bradley.

Also, the pre-election polls were off because black turnout was lower than expected. If DiCamillo had to put a number on white voters who said they were coy about voting for the white Deukmejian, it would be "two to three points at the most." And that was 26 years ago.

Of course, racism exists in America and there are white voters who will not vote for a black candidate, but there are also many white voters who would love to see an African-American in the White House. Gallup analyst Jeff Jones crunched the numbers and concluded that while 6 percent of voters say they are less likely to vote for Obama because of his race, 9 percent say they are more likely to vote for Obama because of his race. So do you think that if Obama wins with a margin of three points or less that newspapers will run stories that assert that Obama won because he was black? Of course not.

According to a Time poll, 43 percent of white men and 48 percent of white women say they will vote for Obama, while 97 percent of black voters support Obama.

Yes, it is natural for African-Americans, who have had to overcome daunting obstacles to gain equal treatment, to want to see a breakthrough candidate in the Oval Office.

But there is something incongruous in examining the racism in a group that plans on voting more than 40 percent for a candidate of a different color, while ignoring a bloc expected to vote within its color lines almost exclusively.

Maybe Obamaphiles are nervous because, while they see Obama leading in the polls, they also know that over the last few decades, the American voter has demonstrated a conservative streak when it comes to the country's commander in chief. The American electorate has not bestowed more than 50 percent of the popular vote on the Democratic nominee since 1976 when Jimmy Carter won the White House for one term.

Or maybe Obamaphiles do not want to let go of their race-baiting habit, despite Obama's successes. Me? I don't think that it will help Obama with undecided voters if his chorus whispers that racism lurks in the heart of the American electorate. But if they want to give McCain a hand in this contest by spreading those insinuations, well, he could use it now.

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