Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Race is a Factor in This Year's Election

At the risk of stating the obvious to some and “playing the race card” to others, I believe race is a central issue in this year’s presidential contest. However, I say that not simply or even because Mitt Romney (a white guy) is running against Barack Obama (a mixed race male who identifies as African American). Rather I say that because of what the two men symbolize and what is at stake for the poor and for people of color in this election. In terms of the numbers Obama is estimated to have received votes from 43% of whites four years ago, but is expected to only pull in about 38% of the white vote this year. Now this is not to imply that a vote against Obama means one is racist. However, we contrast that with the fact that 95% of blacks are expected to vote for Obama, and a majority of Asians, and Hispanics are also expected to vote Obama though not to the same extent of blacks. Add to that that according to the PBS special “Race 2012” 90% of people who voted in the Republican primaries this spring were white. Put this together and the picture that emerges is that the Republicans are an overwhelmingly white party, while the Democrats are attracting a diversity of voters. 

Race is a major factor in this campaign.

Now we might chalk this divide up to embarrassing coincidence, but the fact that the Republicans neither can nor care to attract more voters of color is not something we can easily overlook. Oh yes they had Condoleeza Rice speak at the Republican Convention, Michael Steele was chairman of the Republican Party for a couple of years, and Clarence Thomas the only black judge on the Supreme Court was appointed by a Republican President, but that is colorful window dressing that apparently is not speaking generally to the needs and perspectives of people of color. Now I would contend that neither is Barack Obama. Except for his pre-presidency speech on Race during the 2004 Democratic primary and an oblique reference to Trayvon Martin last spring, Obama has not broached the topic of race either; maybe he doesn’t feel like he can, or maybe he chooses not to. Meanwhile he has surrounded himself with advisors who look and talk like the white power brokers that preceded him. However what is interesting is that according Chrystia Freeland author of Plutocracy: The Rise of the New global Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Obama sees himself as one of the plutocrats. (Notice how when he talks about taxing the super-rich, he always refers to “we”; i.e. he recognizes he is one of them.)Yet even so, people of color (and those whites who see themselves as allies) hold out hope that they have a better chance with Barack Obama in the White House than Romney. At least that is what the numbers suggest.

Race is a factor in this presidential election.

Four years ago when Barack Obama was elected president, many pundits in the media wondered out loud if we had entered a “post-racial society.” There is no question that Barack Obama’s election was historic because he broke the white barrier, but I was not among those who thought we had crossed the post-racial threshold. One could sense in conservative white America a fear that in some way Obama might “retaliate” for all the centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and marginalization faced by African Americans through history. Gun rights advocates feared Obama would take away all their guns. Conservatives feared he would establish a socialist state. Look at the trailer for the recent film Obama 2016” and you see some even feared he would retaliate for colonialism in Africa. His opponents questioned his credentials and even his birth certificate. The underlying racial fear was palpable if not ridiculous. To his credit Mitt Romney has tried not to play on those fears, but his conservative base still harbors them despite clear evidence that such fears were totally unfounded.

While I don’t think Obama’s election ushered in a post-racial era, as my colleague Nathan Corbitt has pointed out, his election was a “tipping point;” that is, with the election of Barack Obama we were served notice that white control of levers of power were beginning to slip. Now there is no question when we look at who sits around the advisors’ tables and who sits on the boards of major corporations and who occupies most of the CEO positions, white males are still very much in control of levers of power. However, the fact that a black man sits in the Oval Office and can set controls on their power, sends a very clear message that the rules of the game have changed. Obama signals a move toward a more diverse society where the white establishment is no longer in control. His push to provide universal healthcare, and his focus on increased education funding point to a strategy that moves from the bottom up, rather than the trickle down philosophy of Reaganites like Romney.

If one only looks at the policies of conservative governors in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the pattern is clear: programs that serve the needs of the homeless, the disabled, the poor and the mentally ill are being cut, while tax breaks are being given to corporations and the wealthy. Young people of color committing petty theft get jail time, while bankers who defraud people out of millions in their pensions and mortgages get regulations loosened and receive bonuses. The rights of unions are being curtailed, while regulations on corporations are being relaxed (in spite of the actions leading to the 2008 recession). Public Education is increasingly privatized and vouchered, while these same leaders make sure their kids don't have to go to those schools. The issue is clear: do we adopt policies that continue to serve the wealthy and powerful, or do we redistribute to provide basic needs for all?

While the word has rarely if ever been mentioned by the candidates in this election, and only cautiously by the media, let’s not kid ourselves: race is a factor in this election, and the choices we make determine whether we close our eyes and hope for a past that never was to return, or move wide-eyed into the future of a multicultural America where the blessings of this nation are shared fairly and equally.