I decided a long time ago that it is futile to debate politics. It's not about facts but ideology. In a country founded of, by and for wealthy white men (nearly half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners, including Washington and Jefferson), truth often takes a back seat to myths spread to perpetuate the existing social order.
It is time we free ourselves of these myths so we can begin to make rational decisions about our lives and our country. We cannot do this until we acknowledge that race and racism may play a role in this election. Given the deteriorating economic situation in this country, one would expect that the incumbent party would have abysmal prospects of retaining power. While the Democrats may gain seats in the Senate and House, the prospects for a Barack Obama victory in the presidential election are in doubt.
There is a deep-seated fear of change in this nation coupled with antipathy toward people of color. Since 1789, there have been 43 presidents. All have been white males, and with the exception of John F. Kennedy, all were Protestant. In the 20th and 21st centuries there have only been three African-American senators. Yet African-Americans compose 13 percent of our population. Among the CEOs of the 1,500 largest corporations in this country, less than 1 percent are people of color.
If one believes that this country is based on and practices equality of opportunity, these statistics provide prima facie evidence that blacks lack the capacity, innate intelligence and drive to achieve. The myths which underlie popular misconceptions about race and equality of educational and economic opportunity in the United States are based on stereotypical views of blacks and other people of color as morally and intellectually inferior to whites. Indeed, the Constitution originally counted blacks as three-fifths of a person. Prior to that, people from Africa (and other indigenous non-European peoples) were viewed as exotic, primitive animals without souls, who therefore could be treated as chattel.
Remnants of such attitudes persist despite many advances blacks have made in our society. For example, a recent AP-Yahoo News poll reported in the St. Petersburg Times found that 40 percent of white Americans hold negative views of blacks. Twenty percent of whites described blacks as violent, and only similar portions said they are intelligent at school, determined and law-abiding.
How long does it take to extinguish such attitudes? Consider how long it took to develop them and what whites believe may happen if the balance of power shifts. If you live in a country that is based on the natural superiority of whites, where they control virtually all the mechanisms of power and privilege, make the rules that regulate (or deregulate) our economic, educational and political systems, then the possibility of introducing change in such a system is traumatic, threatening to turn the natural order upside down. (I would be making much the same argument about our attitudes toward women if Sen. Hillary Clinton had been the Democratic nominee.)
It will be difficult to measure the extent and the effect of such attitudes on this election, because people may not be candid about their stated reasons for selecting one candidate over another. The prevailing view among pollsters is that race may influence the self-report of perhaps 5 percent of voters, but we may never know the truth since that is within the margin of error of many polls. Obviously, supporters of Republican Sen. John McCain are not, ipso facto, racists. However, a large discrepancy between purported candidate choices and actual voting behavior may be indicative of a continuing racial divide in this nation.
But why wait to reach that conclusion? Abundant evidence indicates that race and skin color influence behavior in our society. A 2005 nationally representative study of 77,600 people by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed an average annual number of 191,000 hate crimes in the United States, and half of these were related to race. This study was perplexing, because annual FBI hate crime statistics average less than 10,000. The difference may be explained by the fact that the FBI collects data from cooperating police agencies, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics' relied on self-reports among the population.
No one would dispute the enormous social and economic gains made by African-Americans in the years since the civil rights movement. The very fact that a man of color is a serious candidate for president testifies to positive change. Yet disparities in income, wealth and power among whites, blacks and Latinos are pervasive. Whatever the outcome of this election, it is clear that the conclusion of the Presidential Commission on Race Relations, One America, was prescient: This nation needs to have a serious dialogue about race and its impact on society so we can move ahead united to face the challenges of this new century.
H. Roy Kaplan is a research associate professor at the University of South Florida. He was the executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay and served as an adviser to the Presidential Commission on Race Relations.