Thursday, September 18, 2008

Race and the Rational

In amongst the heavy weather and financial sector meltdown, there's been a steady uptick of talk about the role race will play in the Presidential election. Everyone from Jill Miller Zimon to Tim Russo, from Paul Hackett to Sherrod Brown, From Ted Strickland to Kevin Dewine, to Salon's Walter Shapiro (filing his dispatch from Whitehall) has been talking about Ohio's "Elephant in the Room".

Everyone is pondering one basic question, and one main follow-up: Is there a sizable contingent of Ohio voters who would be voting for Barack Obama if he was a white guy named Barry O'Bannon? If so, does that number cause Ohio to go for McCain instead of Obama?

I haven't jumped on this particular topic for a few different reasons. The first is that nobody has any credible support for whatever number they're guessing. Most folks won't come right out and say that, all else being equal, they'd prefer a white guy. So the scope of the problem is unknown, and although many are urging Dems to take the problem more seriously, it is also possible to over-react.

That leads to my second source of hesitation - The problem is not folks who would never vote for a black candidate, it is the people for whom race is a thumb on the scale, the people who are pushed from 'undecided' to "lean McCain' by skin color. The vast majority of these folks are unaware of any bias, and would sincerely deny that race is playing a part in their decision. Some of these folks will even end up voting for Obama, when other issues and attributes allow Obama to beat the mental point spread. Because of this, the scope of the problem is not only unknown, it is possibly unknowable.

Even if we could confidently identify a group of folks who were biased to vote for Obama's opponent due to conscious or unconscious racial prejudice, perhaps the single worst thing we could do would be to tell them that we had identified them as a racially biased group of swing voters. On the one hand, racism is rightly condemned by the majority of our society. On the other hand, this condemnation has led even the merest hint of racism to be considered a very serious charge, and one that causes people to become understandably defensive. The easiest defense to use in this situation would be for the voter to come up with all of the non-race-based reasons to vote against Obama as a way to argue that race has nothing at all to do with their discomfort. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not put swing voters in a position where it's in their best personal interest to brainstorm Obama negatives.

Which brings me to my final reason to not have addressed the issue: I have no clue what to do about the problem, if in fact a significant problem exists. Racial bias is not rational. You will not change a single vote from McCain to Obama by debating the merits of using skin color as a reason to vote for or against a candidate. I like to debate merits, so we're obviously not on my field of choice, here.

As I see it, there are only a few things that could be done:

1) Be enough better on everything else to overcome biased tendencies within voters.
2) Dampen enthusiasm amongst prejudiced voters to the point where they don't vote.
3) Work to make sure you have more voters who would have otherwise sat out or voted GOP who are voting against the generic old white guy than there are voters voting against the generic young black man.
4) Convince biased voters that Barack isn't "really black."

#4 is offensive on too many levels for me to consider it, #3 is already one of the campaign's main strategies, #2 would potentially flip a number of down-ticket races to the GOP, and #1 is what you do in every campaign, regardless of the race, gender, age, etc. of your candidate.

What it boils down to is that racial bias could hypothetically tip a close election. Our job during this campagn season* is not to shout "RACISM!" or to whisper "privelege and prejudice." Our job is to make sure that the race isn't close. As such, expect me to ignore Babar this fall and focus instead on points like these:

John McCain favors tax policies that would increase income inequality without any convincing evidence that the economy or the federal budget would be better off.

When faced with a foreign policy dilemma, John McCain's thoughts turn to artillery. If anything, his policies will put us in more danger than Bush's have.

John McCain has spent the last ten years trying to get into the White House. Along the way, he has abandoned nearly every reason he originally had for wanting to be there. His quest is not to clean up D.C., it is not to restore America's standing in the world, it is not to put America back at the forefront of the global economy, it is to get himself into the White House as an end unto itself. If he actually gets there, I don't think even he has any idea what the hell he'll actually do.



*As opposed to during the long haul of our lifetimes

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