Race 2012: Our First 'Post-Racial' Election?

This post is part of PBS's Race 2012 Blogging Project. Race 2012: A Conversation About Race and Politics in America, a PBS election special, uses the current presidential election as a lens through which to explore America’s rapidly changing racial landscape. The film premieres on PBS Thursday October, 16th at 8p.m. (Check local listings)

Post-Racial America?
When Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on November 4, 2007, many started throwing around the phrase "post-racial America." While we certainly had reached a historic milestone -- much quicker than many of us would have predicted -- we are nowhere near such a theoretical society devoid of discrimination and prejudice.

The political rhetoric of this election cycle has mostly revolved around jobs, the economy, and federal spending, but there is an undeniable anxiety about race. To be clear, most issues surrounding the 2012 election aren't really about race -- at least not on the surface -- but we can't ignore race's strong undercurrent in this so-called "post-racial" election.

Romney's 47%
By now, everyone has heard (or heard about) the audio tape of Romney discussing the "47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."

As we have come to learn, the 47% who don't pay taxes are actually comprised of the super-wealthy, college students, senior citizens, and service members deployed in combat zones, among those who are down on their luck.

Let's not fool ourselves, however. Romney's comments were the epitome of dog whistle politics.

Imira Jones, writing for Colorlines:
Mitt Romney’s comments on “those people” uttered in a video released yesterday are the missing link in the candidates views on race and economic justice.

[His] heartfelt riff was stunningly wrong and counterfactual in almost every way. Frighteningly it was grounded in over 500 years of racial stereotypes about people of color, particularly those of African descent. The former governor didn’t use the word “black.” He didn’t have to. The nature of his economic smear did it for him.
Of course, by claiming that Romney's comments were racial is to risk being accused of playing the "race card" by the right. And so it goes.

Same-Sex Marriage
What does same-sex marriage have to do with race? Quite a bit, actually.

When Obama's stance on same-sex marriage finally evolved (or was forced to evolve by a trigger-happy Biden), many declared that this pro-equality stance would cost him the election. The loudest voices decrying Obama's pro-equality stance came from African-American clergy.

Rev. William Owens, head of the Coalition of African-American Pastors:
“He has not done a smart thing and it might cost him the election,” Owens said during a press conference Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington. “There are more people that want marriage to be right than there are homosexuals.”...“[Obama] has ignored the black community because he thinks we are in his pocket because he’s black. We refuse to give him a pass.”
While the majority of African Americans have historically been opposed to same-sex marriage, polls taken after Obama's announcement seemed to indicate that opposition is waning.

Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee?
For those not following the story, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown has leveled accusations that his challenger Elizabeth Warren claimed Cherokee heritage in order to benefit her Harvard law career. The accusations have prompted a series of inflammatory remarks from Republicans, pundits, and Native American organizations.

John McCain reacted to the allegations by stating, "I’m entertained. I just think it’s bizarre...I know lots and lots of Native Americans, they have a very huge presence in my state and I’ve yet to meet one of them who claims to be related to Elizabeth Warren.”

While Brown's accusations have boosted his chances against his Democrat opponent, his own camp didn't score any points when staffers were caught on video making tomahawk gestures towards a group of Warren supporters.

Voters are left deciding which is the worst offense: allegedly ginning up minority status for career advancement, or making racially charged gestures in public.

'You're Racist If you Vote For Obama Just Because He's Black'
This is not just something you might hear from your Tea Partying uncle at Thanksgiving. It's something you also hear from African Americans. Not many, but some, including Ben Kinchlow, minister/broadcaster/author and founder of the organizations Americans for Israel and the African American Political Awareness Coalition.

Kinchlow, writing in World Net Daily:
Let me state unequivocally: If you are a black person, and you are voting for Obama solely “because he is black,” then you are by default placing your imprimatur on racism. You are, albeit unknowingly, saying the Klan is right to demand a vote for a candidate solely “because he is white."...Has “the land of the free and the home of the brave” turned into a Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) or South Africa where only race matters?
It's important to note that Kinchlow seems to have a beef with Obama regarding his stance on same-sex marriage.

Magic Johnson, on the other hand, recently stated on CNN:
One thing African-Americans are going to do: They’re either go to vote for President Obama or they’re going to stay home and vote for nobody.”
This race stuff isn't so black and white, is it?

At Least You Know Where They Stand
I grew up in North Carolina, in the shadow of Jesse Helms, a man who didn't mince words when it came to race. Jesse Helms was so blatantly racist (and homophobic) that his own staff coined a slogan that would more or less define his career: "You may not agree with Jesse, but at least you know where he stands."

The past four years have provided us with countless examples of blatant political sentiment. It doesn't take much to know exactly where these folks stand.

In California, there was the empty chair hanging from a noose, with a watermelon and a sign stating, "Go back to Kenya."

In New Jersey, a shop-owner displayed a picture of Obama in witch-doctor garb.

In Ohio, a caller left a highly offensive post-debate message on the voice mailbox of a local labor organization.

In California, a professional rodeo clown told spectators a racist joke about Michelle Obama.

Also in California, a GOP official send an email depicting Obama's parents as monkeys.

In Arizona, radio host Barbara Espinosa said of Barack Obama, "I don't believe in calling him the first black president," she said, "I voted for the white guy myself. I call him a monkey." When told this was a racist comment, Espinosa replied, "with a last name of Espinosa I'm anything but racist."

There seems to be an awful lot of that going around these days -- people unaware of their own racism who are very quick to blame the president himself of playing the race card. Many whites will will cry "reverse racism," a claim utterly disingenuous, if not laughable. Whites can hardly understand what true racism entails given their status in America over the past few hundred years.

Guilty of Being Black
One of the strangest racial phenomena of the past four years is the determination of some on the right to paint Obama as blacker than he actually portrays himself when in the limelight.

Take the 'leaked' video of then-senator Obama speaking at Hampton University in Virginia. In the video, it is purported that Obama speaks in a "racially-charged tone" -- in other words, he sounds more black.

Obama also speaks of the inequality exhibited in the government's response to Katrina. In other words, Obama is "favoring" African-Americans over the rest of America. It has been remarked that the release of this video was timed to counter Romney's "47% video."

It was baffling to hear talk show hosts remark about Obama sounding "more black" in this video, as if we were getting a glimpse of the "real Obama," an obvious tactic to associate Obama with the bogeymen of the 2008 election: Jeremiah Wright, ACORN, the Black Panthers, and Islam.

This charge is about boring as the fact that I often slip back into my Appalachian drawl when I am around my NC relatives at Thanksgiving.

And when people accuse the president of exhibiting signs of his allegiance to the interests of black people, I can't help but think about the past 40+ presidents and their laser-focus on the interests of white folks.

Birtherism, Immigration, and The Fear of Otherness
What does the Birther movement, voter ID legislation, and the draconian immigration laws of Arizona, Utah, Alabama, and South Carolina have in common? The GOP will tell you it's all about preserving the integrity of the constitution and the vision our forefathers had for America. While we can't deny that there might be a bit of truth to that, it comes down to xenophobia and otherness anxiety.

And while xenophobia can be found in all cultures, can be observed in primates, and most likely was crucial to the survival of our ancestors, as modern humans, we are (or, should be, anyway) civilized enough to suppress any unfounded anxieties associated with otherness.

This is difficult to accomplish when you have the propaganda machine working 24 hours a day to validate any anxieties one may have. Too many Americans will readily parrot AM radio talking points that paint African Americans, Latinos, and Arab Americans as threatening to the American way of life.

This xenophobia-stoking propaganda comes in the form of anecdotes, crude internet memes, forwarded emails, conservative pundits, bloggers, and talk radio hosts. They tell us that non-whites are living the dream on welfare (whites actually form the largest racial group on welfare). They tell us that blacks and hispanics are prone to violence and crime (whites commit the vast majority of crimes in America). They tell us to fear Arab Americans, who want to kill us (the fact is that America sees more Jewish acts of terrorism than Islamic terrorism).

However, we humans are not only prone to fear otherness, we are also prone to believe things that 'feel' true to us. It is often through personal experience and education that we overcome. Yet, so many never gain the experience or education necessary to do so. Propaganda, as we have seen throughout history, is designed to appeal emotion, not intellect. And so it goes.

Are We There Yet?
The fact that we have an African-American man sitting in the White House is a clear indicator that America has come a long way since the days of slavery and segregation. Something definitely happened on November 4 of 2008. We witnessed something truly wonderful that day -- a sign that we had fulfilled -- in part at least -- the elusive dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But like most important social causes, progress is often followed by temporary setbacks. As we have seen recently in the marriage equality fight, a step forward is often followed by a few steps back.

Those of us living today will likely never see a true 'Post-Racial' America. It is worth asking if such a thing will ever exist. 'Post-Racial' is as utopian as 'Post-Sexist,' or 'Post-Homophobic.'  The arc is bending in the right direction, but it is much longer than any of us had ever anticipated.


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