Yesterday, the Associated Press posted a story titled “Poll: Racial views steer some white Dems away from Obama.” So in case you are the one American who was previously unaware of this obscure concept called racism, apparently it will lead some whites to not vote for the black guy. Just for fun, I’ve come up with a few story ideas that might have been a bit more newsworthy:
“Poll: Fear of water steers some white Dems away from ocean”
“Poll: Vegan views steer some white Dems away from hamburgers”
“Poll: Masculine views steer some white Dems away from figure skating”
“Poll: Negative view of polls steer some white Dems away from this poll”
“Poll: Love of drunk driving steers some white Dems into brick wall”
Okay, I’m done. What makes the AP story worse is that the poll the story is based on doesn’t support the argument. AP writer Ron Fournier– whose obvious Republican leanings have been pretty poorly disguised lately– opens the story with this bombshell:
…one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles.
But a quick glance at the actual poll results tells nearly the exact opposite story, including a few things Fournier never mentions. Far and away, the top adjective that white Democrats used to describe blacks was “friendly.” In fact, here’s a list of the most common adjectives:
2. Good neighbors
3. Hard working
4. Smart at everyday things
7. Intelligent at school
8. Law abiding
As you can see, a more accurate title for this article would have been: “Overwhelming majority of white Democrats not racist, will vote for Obama.”
The first negative term white Democrats used to describe blacks came in ninth: “complaining.” And even that is probably more an indictment of occasionally over zealous racial policing by prominent black leaders like Al Sharpton than a view of blacks as a whole. Most notably, the terms “lazy” and “violent”– which Fournier claims is a view held by “many” white Democrats– rank dead last and third to last, respectively. And does the 10% who used these terms really qualify as “many”?
If that’s the case, then I could equally make the claim that “many” Americans approve of the job George Bush is doing. After all, 30% is a lot more “many” than 10%. Never mind the fact that 30% is a historically atrocious approval rating for a president. If I’ve already decided that the lede of my story is how overwhelmingly popular Bush is these days, as Fournier seems to have prematurely decided that the lede of his story was the overwhelming impact of race in this election, context goes out the window. And good reporting along with it.
The desire to see racism in what has thus far been a strikingly race neutral campaign also hit the usually respectable Karen Tumulty of Time last week in a blog post titled “McCain plays the race card.” Tumulty objected to McCain’s ad attempting to tie Barack Obama to former Fannie Mae chairman Franklin Raines, not because the ties happen to be nonexistent, but for another more inflammatory reason. Tumulty described the ad like this:
This is hardly subtle: Sinister images of two black men, followed by one of a vulnerable-looking elderly white woman.
When you view the ad on its own, you can see how Tumulty might have reached this conclusion. But when viewed side by side with a similar ad the McCain campaign created to tie Barack Obama to former Fannie Mae chairman Jim Johnson (who happens to be a white man), things look a lot less sinister:
And today, the Politico’s Ben Smith and Avi Zenilman got in on the race-baiting action, posting a story titled “The race discussion Obama didn’t want.” The exaggerations in these two paragraphs alone are staggering:
Racial considerations that have long been palpable in southern Ohio and other crucial regions are again in the foreground. A new poll that accompanied a much buzzed-about Associated Press article on Saturday appears to starkly quantify the cost of racism to Obama: 6 percentage points in the polls.
And Friday’s debate will bring the campaign to the Deep South and offer the symbolism of an integrated debate at Ole Miss, the scene of a brutal battle over integration a generation ago. That conversation creates a moment with risks for both candidates — though perhaps greater risks for Obama.
First, you’ll notice that Politico’s evidence that “racial considerations … are again in the foreground” consists entirely of the dubious AP article and the fact that the first presidential debate will be held in Mississippi. That’s it. Has there been any back and forth about race by the candidates? No, but the AP has proof that a few white people are racist! Has there been any newsworthy developments or discussion about race by anyone other than a member of the media? No, but Mississippi!
And I can’t think of three consecutive words written by any journalist this year that are stupider than these: “an integrated debate.” In the year 2008, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education and 44 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, do we still need to refer to events in the United States as “integrated”? Can you imagine a sportscaster referring to the Super Bowl as “an integrated championship game”?
The fact that the media’s only evidence of racial tension in this campaign is references to other members of the media tells you what a non-story it is. Are there a few whites with racist attitudes in America? Yes, but we knew that back in March when the race-baiting antics of the Clinton campaign, the bombshell of the Jeremiah Wright clips, and Obama’s historic race speech in response legitimately brought race to the forefront of the campaign. We also knew that 200 years ago when the right to own other human beings based on skin color was written into our founding documents. So, yeah, water is indeed wet.
But any attempt by the media to make the story of 2008 about how far America has yet to go, as opposed to how immeasurably far we’ve progressed, is a tragic failure of journalism. In the end, I believe, the story will not be Geraldine Ferraro, it’ll be Iowa.
As blatantly dishonest as John McCain’s campaign has been in almost every way, the one thing you can say is that it has not– to this point– been demonstrably racist. Sure, there have been a few instances of poorly chosen words by peripheral surrogates and eyebrow-raising ads by down-ballot Republican candidates, but nothing near the deliberate and concerted effort we saw from the Clintons in the Democratic primary. Hopefully, both campaigns will continue to occupy the high ground on this issue (though somehow I doubt the McCain campaign and its various 527s will be able to resist the temptation to splice some Jeremiah Wright clips together with a few out-of-context quotes from Obama’s often impolitic first memoir).
In short, despite the fact that Barack Obama is the first black major party nominee in American history, race is not– as the AP and Politico would like you to believe– in the foreground. Is it there? Always. But with last week’s near collapse of capitalism as we know it and the continued cost of two wars abroad, I’d argue that race is nowhere near the foreground. It seems as though the media has been preparing all year for a nuclear meltdown of American race relations, and other than a few weeks in March, they’ve been mostly disappointed. The natives are now clearly growing restless.
The question is, will the media continue to push the issue? Will reporters continue sticking microphones in the face of every 90-year-old white guy who is skeptical of Obama due to race and offering it as proof that “many” whites are racist? (The irony being that reporters used to stick microphones in the face of every crazy black person on the street as proof that “many” blacks were one thing or another. I’m guessing there are a lot of white Democrats in Pennsylvania and Ohio right now who are figuring out what it means to be stereotyped.) Will the media be able to resist asking the candidates to comment on the recent (media-created) race discussion and then blowing up whatever answer they get into a huge deal? Will the media succeed in turning one poorly-analyzed poll– a literal nothing– into next week’s lead story?
Or will the media go back to doing what is supposed to be their job? You know, reporting the news, not making it.
POST SCRIPT: I realize that last week, I wrote:
…he’s a black man named Barack Obama running for President of the United States. There will be a Bradley effect.
I do still believe there will be a number of whites, possibly approaching the millions, whose skepticism of a black candidate will lead them to vote the opposite of how they represented themselves in polls. I also believe that these voters will be swamped and overwhelmed by the number of new and newly energized off-the-radar voters, mostly white, who have never been polled because they are not “likely voters” but will come out to support Barack Obama. But you don’t see too many stories about that group, do you?