The Thing that Dares not Speak its Name
Yesterday Andrew Kohut spoke the unspeakable.
For those who don’t know him, he is one of the deans of American political polling. A likeable, credible and thoroughly professional man, he is a regular on the Lehrer News Hour, where he explains the methods and results of scientific opinion polling.
What he wrote yesterday was very direct: the difference between Iowa and New Hampshire—and the reason why all the polls on the N.H. Democratic race were wrong—was racism, pure and simple. Poor and uneducated white voters, who tend to avoid revealing their views to pollsters, voted against Obama because of race.
That was my first thought, too. It was the first thought of anyone familiar with the long experience of polls overestimating the popularity of minority candidates. Kohut himself confirmed this point.
Yet I and many others did not speak our minds. Why? Because, so often, racism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The rap against Obama has always been that he can’t win because of someone else’s racism. If people (like me) who think he is by far the best candidate in either party believe that, then racism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those of us who are well enough informed and educated to recognize a once-in-a-century leader when we see him, despite his color, are controlled by those who aren’t. What a tragic dilemma!
But I was wrong to ignore the phenomenon, and I salute Kohut for speaking what dares not say its name. It is never good policy to deny reality, however abhorrent. Even Dubya knows that now.
Now that the well-known secret is out, there is only one question. What do those of us who enthusiastically support Obama’s candidacy do?
We obviously can’t “play the race card,” complaining and decrying. Doing that would only create white resentment and a backlash, which might be worse than the residue of racism itself. Nobody likes a whiner, even if the whining is justified.
Obama himself knows this. He hasn’t played the race card and never will. His whole life has been overcoming obstacles without complaining. That’s one of the many things that make him such an attractive candidate.
So what do we do now? The first thing is to ask ourselves why Iowa was different.
I think it was the caucuses. Secret ballots have their benefits. But there is something healthy about standing up before your peers and neighbors and explaining your vote.
That’s how they once did it in Athens and Rome. Voting was collective, not private. It took place in the Acropolis and the Forum, not behind a curtain in a secret booth.
Racism lives in the shadows; it shuns the light of day. Most good people are embarrassed to appear racist before their friends and neighbors.
But caucusing also has a decided positive effect. The vast majority of racism is “soft” racism, which derives from ignorance and semi-conscious fear. That’s especially true in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. There the African-American population is so small that many people have never known a person of mixed race well.
In Iowa, the half-conscious fear melted away when good people saw their friends and neighbors—whom they did know well—speaking enthusiastically for Obama. In New Hampshire, the ill-informed carried their half-conscious fears into the voting booth undissuaded.
So that’s our challenge in a nutshell. How do we educate a great mass of uneducated, poor whites in a just a few weeks?
There may be an answer. Recently PBS rebroadcast an interview that Gwen Ifill did with the so-called “Little Rock Nine”—the nine African-Americans who first integrated the high school in Little Rock Arkansas under the watchful eye of protective federal troops.
Every day for their entire high-school careers, the Nine ran a gauntlet of hate. Their lockers and books were trashed. They suffered threats, spittle and worse. Yet they stood their ground, studied peacefully, and got well educated.
Fifty years later, what beautiful souls they turned out to be. They were polished, thoughtful, smart, and articulate. They had made the most of the education they got, and it showed.
None of the Nine held back. They were only children at the time. They all told how hard it was, how scared they were, how tough they had to be, and how quickly they had had to grow up. But none revealed the slightest trace of bitterness or resentment. All glowed with intelligence, courage, determination, wisdom born of hardship, and fundamental decency. There are lots of others like them, including some (but not all) African-American political leaders.
If every poor, uneducated white who harbors nameless fears of race could meet one of the Little Rock Nine personally, most racism would fade away. Of course there are hard-core racists who will never change. But the vast majority of racists are those who just don’t know and just don’t think. When they think of African-Americans, no familiar friendly face comes to mind. Only the violence on TV and in the movies bubbles into their subconscious.
We whites can help, but we can’t close the deal. An example is worth ten thousand words and a thousand assurances.
What this analysis suggests is that African-Americans who support Obama need to make a massive effort to get out into demographically critical poor and uneducated white areas. They need to explain patiently why supporting Obama is in the best interests of poor and uneducated whites. Then they need to stick around, take questions and assuage fears and doubts.
Even the Little Rock Nine cannot rest yet. It’s unfair to put yet another burden on the brave Nine and all the other African-Americans who’ve fought so hard and worked so long, from the fifties until today.
But life is unfair. No one knows that better than African-Americans. That may be the only way we can turn this thing around.
And turn it around we must. Leaders like Obama come around only once a century. None of us, whatever our race, can afford to miss this chance.