Saturday, August 09, 2008

Race matters in the race for the White House

Whenever the TV flashes the very first news about mass shootings in a school or a mall, I say a silent prayer that the shooter is not black. It is an instinctive reaction, because I’m a worrier. I know how wildly prejudice can assert itself.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others, kept me worrying until the killer turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, a young white U.S. Army veteran. I didn’t hear anyone say, “Oh those white people. And they want us to trust them.”

What if the Unabomber, the mad genius Ted Kaczysnki, or Jerry Dahmer, who dismembered and ate his victims, had turned out to be black? Fortunately, we weren’t tested.

This November the racial attitudes of Americans will face a massive public test in the Presidential race. The New York Times ran a pre-test with CBS News a few weeks ago, and the result is not inspiring. On August 9, a Times article analyzed key answers to the poll:

“When whites were asked whether they would be willing to vote for a black candidate, 5 percent confessed that they would not. That’s not so bad, right? But wait.

“The pollsters then rephrased the question to get a more accurate picture of the sentiment. They asked the same whites if most of the people they knew would vote for a black candidate. Nineteen percent said that those they knew would not…This universe could be substantial. That’s bad.”

In his article’s final paragraph, Columnist Charles M. Blow writes: “Think racism isn’t a major factor in this election? Think again.”

And he reaches that conclusion without knowing the answer to a question that the poll didn’t pose: Would most people you know vote to put a black woman in the White House? Pollsters skip that question because it is considered too sensitive to ask whether whites prefer a white First Lady to one who is black. The race of the First Lady shouldn’t matter, even though Cindy McCain is constantly there at her husband’s side as a not-so-subtle reminder of the choice.

It shouldn’t matter, and yet I think is does. Remember, I’m a worrier.

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