Race issue a constant subtext in campaign
TO UNDERSTAND the importance of race in Tuesday’s presidential election, you have to go back at least half a century, to the civil rights era, without which Barack Obama’s election in 2008 would not have been possible.
Carol Swann-Daniels was 12 years old when the Pupil Placement Board in Richmond, Virginia, gave her permission to attend a white school. It was 1960, six years after angry whites vowed massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate in the Brown vs Board of Education ruling. One county in Virginia simply shut down its public schools rather than admit black students.
Swann-Daniels, now 64 and a retired special education teacher, says Richmond hoped to fend off federal intervention by allowing her to attend a white school three blocks from her home.
Swann-Daniels’s name and address were published in newspapers.
“They cursed you out on the telephone. They called you nigger, made threats,” she recalls now. Her parents forbade her from answering the phone.
A horde of reporters charged down the street when she arrived for her first day of school accompanied by plain-clothes policemen. “The kids called me names. They threw food and ink at me, and paper airplanes with pins sticking out of them.”
Fearing “contamination”, white children refused to use chairs that Swann-Daniels sat on. If by chance they touched her, they asked other children to brush them off. No one would hold down her feet so she could do sit-ups in gym class. When she accompanied her class to the bowling alley – a place that was still off limits to blacks – she wasn’t allowed to wear the bowling alley’s shoes, “so the owner could assure clients that no black person had worn them”.
Later, high-school students “were more sophisticated in torture techniques”, Swann- Daniels laughs. “The football players would trip you in the hallway so you dropped your books. Then they’d say, ‘Look at the maid scrubbing the floor’.”
Swann-Daniels wept for joy when Obama was elected, and she will vote for him again on Tuesday. But she likens his election to the rise of a black rock musician, film star or sports hero.
“He’s just one exceptional person. I don’t think it changed the lives of African Americans in this country at all. If anything, it galvanised the negative feelings of white people who are very afraid of being pushed out.”
This election is the most racially polarised in a quarter of a century. A Washington Post/ABC poll published last week shows Obama trailing Mitt Romney by 23 per cent among white voters. At the same point in the 2008 campaign, Obama was only eight points behind John McCain among white voters. But 79 per cent of non-whites say they’ll vote for Obama.
Race has been a constant subtext of the campaign: when the failed Republican candidate Newt Gingrich called Obama “the food stamp president”; when Romney falsely accuses Obama of doing away with work requirements for welfare recipients. John Sununu, a co-chair of Romney’s campaign said in July that he “[wished] this president would learn how to be an American”.
Last week Sununu accused Obama of having “created more racial division than any administration in history”.
Donald Trump, another Romney stalwart and an originator of the so-called birther theory (that Obama was born in Kenya and so is ineligible for election as president), last week offered to pay $5 million to Obama’s favourite charity if the president would release all his college and passport applications.
If Obama loses, African Americans will believe his election in 2008 was a fluke, and that he was defeated by racial prejudice.