Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Our Country

The Post has a rather disturbing--if not entirely surprising--story today about how Obama volunteers and the Obama campaign at the grassroots have had to endure the violence of racial animosity.

Here's the worst: 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!"

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, said she, too, came across "a lot of racism" when campaigning for Obama in Pennsylvania. One Pittsburgh union organizer told her he would not vote for Obama because he is black, and a white voter, she said, offered this frank reason for not backing Obama: "White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people."

Obama campaign officials say such incidents are isolated, that the experience of most volunteers and staffers has been overwhelmingly positive.

The campaign released this statement in response to questions about encounters with racism: "After campaigning for 15 months in nearly all 50 states, Barack Obama and our entire campaign have been nothing but impressed and encouraged by the core decency, kindness, and generosity of Americans from all walks of life. The last year has only reinforced Senator Obama's view that this country is not as divided as our politics suggest."

Campaign field work can be an exercise in confronting the fears, anxieties and prejudices of voters. Veterans of the civil rights movement know what this feels like, as do those who have been involved in battles over busing, immigration or abortion. But through the Obama campaign, some young people are having their first experience joining a cause and meeting cruel reaction.

On Election Day in Kokomo, a group of black high school students were holding up Obama signs along U.S. 31, a major thoroughfare. As drivers cruised by, a number of them rolled down their windows and yelled out a common racial slur for African Americans, according to Obama campaign staffers.

I can kind of understand why the Obama campaign is choosing to downplay these episodes. But these stories nevertheless reveal the darkness and ugliness that continue to bloom in certain corners of American life among Regular, Hard Working, White Americans.

They also suggest that many White Americans haven't bothered to become acquainted with much of their country's history. And while these stories are certainly disturbing and discouraging, there's another trend, albeit in the Elitist Literary World Where People Read Books, in which the country's terrible racial past is being unearthed and revealed in the light. Specifically, at least four books just in the past several months have come out documenting the domestic White terrorism spawned after the Civil War in the South. One of these episodes, the Colfax Massacre, is the main subject of two new books, and provides the opening for another. A fourth text details the violence in South Carolina and Mississippi, in addition to Louisiana. Today, the Colfax Massacre, in which scores of African Americans were killed, continues to be celebrated and highlighted by the State of Louisiana in the form of a marker that laments the few Whites killed during the attack, fought as it is now claimed, to redeem the state from "unjust, corrupt, carpetbagger rule." The bodies of the African Americans killed were hastily buried. Their bones have been routinely and inadvertantly dug up and uncovered as various construction projects have occured in the area. But the public and state-sanctioned misinformation about the attack continue to this day.

Fortunately, these books are helping to shine the light on these past episodes, if not to right the wrongs themselves. Maybe some of the people in Kokomo will give one or more of these books a read.

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