Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., Oct. 29, 30 or 31
There’s an ugly apparition at American voters’ front door, and it’s not a neighborhood kid dressed up as a zombie or vampire. It’s race, and it would be absurd to pretend otherwise.
However, accepting its existence is healthier than denying it, and a divinity school professor has suggested ways to make political discussions – even debates tainted with racial bias – as civil as hearing “trick ‘r treat” and giving sweets to small pirates or princesses standing on your stoop.
There are many reasons to support or oppose candidates, but voters’ racial attitudes – conscious and unconscious – are not irrelevant. Race seems to be shouted from the rooftops – barely disguised – by Gov. Mitt Romney and his supporters, and virtually ignored by President Barack Obama. Both approaches are devious.
Romney had five attack ads exploiting white misperceptions about minorities by falsely accusing Obama of, among other things, gutting ’90s welfare reform so people “wouldn’t have to work. They just send you a check.”
Timothy Noah in the neo-conservative magazine The New Republic said Romney is “willing to say just about anything to get himself elected president.”
For his part, Obama seems willing to say just about nothing about race, as if prejudice online and elsewhere doesn’t exist. That’s as foolish as encouraging gun owners to stock up on extra weapons by falsely claiming the White House plans to confiscate firearms.
Further, a new study from the University of Washington, which surveyed 15,000 voters, shows that many white and non-white voters – even those who don’t believe they tend to favor whites over blacks – might vote against Obama because of his race. These voters might cite the economy or other reasons, but it could really be conscious or unconscious racial attitudes.
“Our findings may indicate that many of those who expressed egalitarian attitudes by voting for Obama in 2008 and credited themselves with having ‘done the right thing’ then are now letting other considerations prevail,” said Harvard University psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji, who collaborated on the research.
As for Romney’s appeal to anti-Obama fervor, Anthony Greenwald, the psychology professor who led the study, suspects that Obama’s power as president in 2012, compared with his “lesser” status as candidate in 2008, may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.”
Another possibility is that GOP candidates’ assertion that their most important goal is to remove Obama from the presidency “may have strong appeal to those who have latent racial motivation,” Greenwald continued.
“People may not even be aware that they have certain racial attitudes, and that could be why, even with an African-American president in the White House for nearly four years, race continues to play a role in electoral politics,” he added.
Prior research showed that blacks and whites show explicit preferences for their own race, according to Greenwald. However, when it comes to implicit, unconscious, preferences, blacks tend not to prefer one race over another, but almost 70 percent of whites show an implicit racial bias, he said.
Meanwhile, race-oriented attitudes can be harmful. African-American actress Stacey Dash (from the movie and TV spinoff “Clueless”) recently announced her support for Mitt Romney and was harshly criticized by Obama supporters (who apparently never heard of Herman Cain, Michael Steele or other black Republicans).
That said, Obama’s support in the African-American community must partly stem from outrage and subsequent solidarity with a man unfairly criticized as the “food stamp president” or subjected to unprecedented rudeness such as U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) interrupting a speech to Congress with “You lie!” or the discredited claim that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest University divinity professor Michelle Voss Roberts says Americans can learn to participate in healthy political discussions by learning from a surprising place – conversations about religion. She has four suggestions for constructive dialogue:
1. Assume the best. Be honest and sincere, and expect the same from those who disagree.
2. Allow others to define themselves. You aren’t talking to a stereotype but a living, thinking person. If you describe their position, they should be able to see themselves there.
3. Compare apples to apples. It’s unfair to compare the ideals of one side with the missteps of the other. Compare policy proposals to policy proposals, records to records.
4. Develop a knack for self-criticism. We can learn from one another if we’re able to acknowledge our own mistakes and admit that we don’t have all the answers.
“The entire world is at stake in political and religious disagreements,” Roberts said, “yet genuine interchanges can surprise and delight us.”
As Orson Aguilar recently wrote for the Progressive Media Project, addressing Obama and Romney: “Gentlemen, play the race card. But for once, do it honestly.”