Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Campaign Workers and Racism

(The vandalized Obama campaign office in Vincennes, Indiana. Photo by Ray McCormick.)

Last week, NPR ran a segment I found pretty despicable. It wasn't the story itself, although the subject matter was appalling; what I found despicable was one of the listener e-mails responding to the story.

Let me back up. NPR had a good story on the racism faced by some young Obama campaign workers. After running audio of some pretty racist white voters, Michele Noris interviewed Kevin Merida about his front page article for The Washington Post on the subject. You can read Merida's article here and his online discussion on it here. Oh, and John Cole posted some pretty disturbing videos of some racist white voters here, and also explained how party identification in West Virginia can be highly misleading. All of it's worth checking out, but here's a sample from Merida's piece:

In Muncie, a factory town in the east-central part of Indiana, Ross and her cohorts were soliciting support for Obama at malls, on street corners and in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and they ran into "a horrible response," as Ross put it, a level of anti-black sentiment that none of them had anticipated.

"The first person I encountered was like, 'I'll never vote for a black person,' " recalled Ross, who is white and just turned 20. "People just weren't receptive."

For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

The contrast between the large, adoring crowds Obama draws at public events and the gritty street-level work to win votes is stark. The candidate is largely insulated from the mean-spiritedness that some of his foot soldiers deal with away from the media spotlight.

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: "It wasn't pretty." She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"

It's not a pretty picture. Sadly, it's not that surprising, but for many of the young workers involved, this was their first experience with racism that direct, raw, hateful and unapologetic. A confrontation like that is unsettling, often stunning, and typically lingers long afterwards.

As NPR often does, they ran some reader e-mails on a following day. Their description on their site reads (emphasis mine):

Noah Adams reads listeners' responses to yesterday's program. We have received hundreds of messages about our coverage from southwest China, where Monday's earthquake is believed to have killed tens of thousands of people. There's also mixed reaction to our interview on the racism experienced by people working for the Barack Obama campaign.

You can listen to the short segment here. I'd suggest just listening to it, but I've transcribed the key portion:

"I dare you to read my letter," writes Henry Spencer of Margate, Florida. I am sitting here seething with anger, hatred and disgust for white America. I have just heard a bunch of white people from West Virginia say they would never vote for a black man for president. I am married to a white woman that I love so much. We are raising our daughter to believe that she can be anything she sets her mind to in this country. But we now feel that is a lie.

Here's a different response from listener Thomas Martin, who writes, "I was concerned by your conversation with a Washington Post reporter. The subtext was that there are a lot of scary, racist white people out there. Is it possible that some John McCain campaign workers have been given less than hospitable receptions in predominately African-American neighborhoods?"

We welcome comments from all neighborhoods, all points of view. Write to us at NPR dot org, Contact.

What's your reaction?

Here's mine. NPR said they received many responses on that story. I don't know the tone of all of them. I don't envy them trying to sort through them all, those emails were probably trimmed down somewhat, and issues of race with a large audience often require treading carefully. But I still think this is a classic example of a major media outlet creating a false equivalency in (to use Kathy G's words) "a misguided attempt to be "fair."" I trust most listeners can hear the anguish of Henry Spencer, and can decide for themselves whether Thomas Martin's email is as obnoxious as I find it.

Here's why. The story was about racism. Actual racism, experienced by real people, young people who were idealistic and doing something special and wonderful, working on a political campaign for little to no pay. No one said all white people are racists. No one said that all rural white people are racists, or the citizens of the states in question are all racists. No one said you're a racist if you don't support Obama, for that matter. Yet still, Martin felt defensive and wrote about that sort of "subtext." His response to actual, documented racism was to offer a hypothetical about racism that McCain workers could possibly have encountered. He doesn't know that they have, and provided no examples whatsoever. That's ridiculous, and I find it pretty irritating.

I don't blame NPR too much. And if you read through all the pieces linked above, you'll also see that Kevin Merida fielded a similar question in his online chat, which he handled pretty diplomatically. But there are several implicit false assertions in Martin's response. One is that hypothetical racism is the same as actual racism, that they are equivalent offenses or somehow balance each other out. Another is that if McCain campaign workers met a frosty reception in predominately black neighborhoods, it must have been due to racism. Yet another is the suggestion that NPR was somehow wrong or imbalanced in their original story, or that it's not a big deal or worthy of coverage. There's also a denial of the power dynamics at play.

McCain has campaigned in some black neighborhoods, but not that many, certainly not compared to the Democrats, for whom African-Americans have long been a core constituency. One of the reasons McCain's campaign workers might get a frosty reception is because they're Republicans. Their party has prominent factions who demonize blacks and other minorities, try to disenfranchise their votes, oppose progressive economic policies including raising the minimum wage, for years practiced the racist "Southern strategy" and have been pulling some of the same crap this year. It would be ridiculous to say that all Republicans or conservatives are racists, but it's not exactly a secret that if you're a racist, you probably vote Republican and feel more comfortable with that crowd. McCain himself consistently voted against MLK Day. McCain's policies will be bad for most Americans, actually, but there's nothing there for the poor, the lower middle class and middle class to celebrate.

There's also the small issues of power and class. Racism is racism, but when someone rich and in a position of power acts in a racist fashion against someone who's poor and with very little power, it's more despicable than if the positions are reversed. And going back to our story, when there are credible reports about John McCain's campaign workers being met with racial slurs, his offices being vandalized with racially-tinged graffiti and his campaign receiving bomb threats, then we'll talk, and sure, we can condemn that, too. But that hasn't happened, not that we know of, certainly not on the scale that has in fact, in reality, occurred against Obama's campaign . Let's also not pretend that McCain's policies are as beneficial as Democratic ones. And yeah, it's ironic that some working class whites opposes the party that would do more for them economically because of socially conservative issues. But Obama was never going to get the racist vote. Some rural white voters certainly have or would favor Clinton or McCain for reasons other than race. But Martin sought to minimize the fact that a significant number of citizens, rather than responding politely, felt comfortable or even entitled to hurl racial slurs at complete strangers who were doing their part for American democracy. I find that troubling. And I find it troubling that Martin, or others, don't find that troubling. The Washington Post and NPR were right to run the story, and they both did a good job of it. If such stories irritate the Thomas Martins of the world, somehow I think I can live with that.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


macon d said...

Excellent analysis, thank you, of another example of the subdued racism of NPR. I can't listen to it anymore. The syrupy, presumptive educated-class whiteness of its whole framework, sound, and aesthetic rankles so much that I can hardly hear what they're saying anymore.

Democracy Now! rocks. That's my favorite radio alternative.

Batocchio said...

Thanks, Macon D. I agree that Democracy Now! rocks. I disagree a bit on NPR. They ran the original story, after all, and their coverage on Katrina and post-Katrina, including racial issues, has been some of the best around.

However, they don't deal well with scoundrels. They have too many right-wing think tank people on, when people lie they don't challenge them enough, and in this case, they give equal time to a guy who's effectively an apologist for racism. I could be wrong, but I think this is a failure of nerve and a misguided attempt to be "fair." But again, I'm a fan of Amy Goodman and the gang.

Proud2bHumble said...

I've been the only white guy (and I mean Hitler's wetdream white) in lots and lots of places and situations and have never had a problem, but I've seen quite a few 'Honky Tom' Martin types show up with their fucked up attitudes and get shit started, too... White racists aren't really 'scary'. Scared, yeah, not scary. Stooopid too.