One alarming statistic out of the West Virginia primary was that some 21% of those polled said that race played a role in their voting decision and some 85% of that group voted for Hillary Clinton. Now, the immediate response of social conservatives is to ask why I am not disturbed by the 95+% of black voters that Barack Obama typically gets. Very simply, I do believe there is a difference between a large group of people voting for someone vs a large group of people voting against someone. Most of the blacks who vote for Obama do not do so because they don’t want a white in the White House. The historical devotion of blacks to the Democratic party, which has always offered up white candidates, supports this. With Obama, they are voting for a black, not against a white. The same cannot be said for 17 or so % of the white folks who voted against Obama.
What troubles me much more than the numbers is our inability to dig underneath them. After every primary, we are left with the cold numbers and left to draw our own conclusions but do we ever really get any closer to a productive discussion about the possible racial issues behind the numbers? One of the things we hear a lot from the pundits is that it is a generational thing. The idea being that young folks today know better than to be racist. First, I think that it is somewhat of a myth. The old song from the musical South Pacific, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” still holds true today. As I look at some of the West Virginians featured on the evening news saying “I don’t want no more Husseins” or “we’ve had trouble with blacks”, I do think that perhaps they have younger relatives who are mortified to see their kin represented this way in the media. But there are lots of other young folk who know nothing better than the mental rot being fed to them by their older relatives. Their generation will carry racism into the future.
So it is not sufficient to blame our current racial divide on generational differences and implicitly suggest that we don’t need to do anything cos once all the old bigots die off, we’ll be a free nation. The current presidential race highlights how imperative it is to begin a serious national discussion on race. Some of the West Virginians quoted saying nonsense this week, are surely “God fearing” church going folks. What is their minister telling them every Sunday that leaves them so wary of blacks? What are the educational and government leaders telling them? Why are these people not being inundated with a positive message that makes their racism seem absurd to them?
What is special about this moment is that we can look at a leader who has such a complex racial background that he makes clear, by just existing, that we all have much more in common than we have apart. Barack Obama’s candidacy provides us with a ready excuse to have an open, productive and enriching conversation about our differences, and how those differences make us stronger. I suppose my great fear is that our country will pass up this opportunity. We will allow the ignorant to remain trapped in their ignorance. We will continue to make laws to change behavior but make no attempt to really change hearts and minds.
The time has come to not just stand pat on the statistical questions. After the pollster asks “Did race play a a role in your vote?”, the next question must be “why are you a racist?”