Will Obama's race matter?
Dale is waiting to play Texas Hold'em, in the coastal town of South Bend, on Willapa Bay. He's got something to say the minute I announce...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Dale is waiting to play Texas Hold'em, in the coastal town of South Bend, on Willapa Bay. He's got something to say the minute I announce I'm with The Seattle Times.
Only he's sure "Seattle isn't going to want to hear it."
He says it anyway.
"What about Obama?" he mocks, repeating my question. "Let me tell you — I was driving and saw that bumper sticker 'Veterans for Obama.' I couldn't believe it. When was that [blank] ever in the service?"
"[Blank]" is a word so offensive we won't use it in this newspaper. It is the n-word. It sails out of Dale's mouth as comfortably as talk about the weather. He's a 61-year-old former logger and Vietnam vet who wouldn't give his last name.
He goes on in a harangue of racist trash talk. About how Obama might as well join the Taliban. How Obama's "not American" and "should move back to Africa."
"I had a lot of trouble with black people when I was in the service," he explains.
Dale's right about one thing: Seattle probably didn't want to hear it.
But it is out there, being said. It's not just Dale. After traveling through 18 counties of Washington state these past 10 days, talking with dozens of voters, I'm sorry to report I ran into surprising amounts of racism and xenophobia. It ranged from the subtle to the rank, from rural to urban. All when the subject was the odds-on favorite to be the next president of the United States.
• A gun-shop owner in Eastern Washington described how he didn't trust Obama: "I personally feel you ought to be a full-fledged American to be president."
• A motel keeper on the Washington coast said he "can't get past the issue of his middle name [Hussein]. He's got sympathy there to terrorists, to al-Qaida or other Arab terrorist groups."
• A retiree in Issaquah, out getting his mail, launched into a detailed theory of how Obama reminded him of Ralph Bunche, the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner who, through the United Nations, helped dismantle the European colonial system in Africa.
"Because he's black, Obama has those same kinds of goals for the black race," the retiree said. "He wants the liberation of the black race. That's my concern."
In none of these conversations did I bring up Obama's race or religion. The comments spilled out unbidden, as if they were standard election-year chitchat.
It's not only me who's noticing.
A few blocks from the Issaquah retiree's house, I met Veronica Cuschieri, a 42-year-old mom of twins who moved to the Sammamish plateau from Detroit four years ago. After voting for George Bush in 2004, she's backing Obama this year. She said she hears race-based digs at Obama "all the time."
"People say — 'I'm not voting for a black guy,' " she said. "It just comes out. I was surprised. Moving here from Detroit, there has been more of that kind of thing than I expected."
In Hoquiam, in blue-leaning Grays Harbor County, former pulp-mill worker Richard Pierce, who says he wanted Hillary Clinton but now will probably vote for Obama, has heard racial slurs affixed to the Illinois senator repeatedly.
"I think there's a fair bit of people who won't vote for him because of his race," he said.
This is about the only issue left in this presidential race. If you believe the polls, Obama has a steady five- to 10-point lead nationally, as well as in Washington state. But are those polls true?
Will there be a voting-booth backlash against the idea of having our first black president?
A number of researchers have tried to answer this question (far more scientifically than my method of driving around talking to people). One, by Stanford University, said the "prejudice penalty" might depress Obama's total by 6 percentage points. Another, by Gallup, said his race might be an advantage because he's attracting some blacks who wouldn't ordinarily back a Democrat.
University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald suggests that the racial novelty of Obama's candidacy may actually cause polls to underestimate his appeal.
It turns out Obama did better than what polls had predicted in a dozen primaries. Greenwald, who specializes in how unconscious bias affects behavior, says people often succumb to social pressures when answering questions. Some may default and give a pollster (or a traveling columnist) what they believe to be a conventional answer for their social circle (such as, I'm voting for the white guy), even if they may end up backing the black guy in the privacy of the voting booth.
I'm not sure I buy this, but a bunch of Washingtonians told me it may be happening. Some people who could blister your ears with racist talk may vote for Obama anyway.
"Some are just prejudiced people, hard cases," said Pierce, the former pulp-mill worker from Hoquiam. "But I think some others may overcome it and go for Obama. Especially out here. Race isn't as big of a deal when the economy's going down the tubes."
Same thing in the Latino-dominated town of Toppenish, in the Yakima Valley, said Tomas Villanueva, 66, who has lived there 50 years.
"There has been some division in the past between black people and Latino people," he said. "But it was always exaggerated. And now with the economy sinking, more than ever we're all in the same boat."
Villanueva, who lost a race for state Senate in Toppenish two years ago as a Democrat, says religion is a bigger issue than race among many Latinos.
"Many are real Catholics, where religion is very strong," he said. "If there is hesitation about Obama it is on values issues, like abortion, where many Latino Catholics don't agree with him."
Back in South Bend, Dale wrapped up his racist theorizing, and the poker game started up in a bowling alley. Fifteen men and women lounged at two felt tables. I asked them to talk politics, and along the way there was another xenophobic jab at Obama, a sexist put-down or two of Sarah Palin and some mocking of John McCain's age.
It was equal opportunity, in its way. But is this really America?
Steve Laine, a commercial fisherman who had been standing there in silence during Dale's diatribe, said I should dismiss it.
It's surface-level noise. When people are unsure or don't like their choices, sometimes they pop off.
"Obama's going to win out here," he said, adding he will probably vote for him. "I don't think race will have all that much to do with the actual vote. It's just talk."
It sure is ugly. It makes our country sound bitter and small.
But Laine is also right — it isn't the last word. If it's true that some people may set aside racial prejudices to vote for Obama, well, talk about breaking a barrier.
That would be quite a step, one vote at a time, toward race not mattering so much anymore.
Danny Westneat: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2086.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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