Will race be election wild card?

Sat, Oct 25, 2008, 01:00

Early polls put Barack Obama in a strong position but there are fears he could fall victim to the 'Wilder effect' as race persists as a central election issue, writes Denis Staunton

THE FLAGS OF dozens of nations hang in the lobby of TC Williams High School in Alexandria, celebrating the scattered origins of the students in one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the US.

Barack Obama held a rally at the school before Virginia's Democratic primary last February, paying tribute to its special place in the history of racial integration. The story of TC Williams's struggle to overcome racial tensions after the desegregation of Alexandria's schools in 1971 is told in Remember the Titans, a 2000 film starring Denzel Washington.

If Obama had stayed to watch a basketball game at the school, however, he would have noticed that, for all their diversity, the students tend to congregate in racially homogenous groups. It's the same thing in the cafeteria, with most of the black kids sitting together and most of the whites doing the same.

"Parents are often shocked when they see it," says Patrick Welsh, who has taught English at TC Williams for more than 30 years. "When they are, I usually ask them how many people from another ethnic group they've had to dinner at their home lately."

Rachel Goldfarb, a 12th grader who went to an all-white school before coming to TC Williams, insists that the separate tables at the cafeteria don't reflect any real hostility between black and white.

"Social groups don't necessarily fall on racial lines but sometimes it just happens that way," she says. "I didn't know anything about race and I didn't know racism existed until I came here."

Black students agree that adults read too much into the fact that the school sometimes looks more like a mosaic than a melting pot, pointing out that people of all ages gravitate to those with whom they have most in common. Most acknowledge, however, that integrated education offers no escape from racial prejudice and Brian Heming, a black honours student, has heard slurs ranging from fairly harmless jokes to outright bigotry.

"I was on a Christian Community bus outing and this white girl said on the phone 'I'm on the bus with all these N****rs'," he says.

Heming has also faced hostility from black teenagers, however, who chide him for "acting white" when they see him studying harder than most of his peers.

Obama's candidacy has thrilled TC Williams students, along with much of America's youth, holding out the promise not just of generational change in the country's leadership but the prospect of racial healing.

"It would be a breakthrough for anyone who's not a white male to be president," says Rachel Goldfarb. "If he does become president, everyone will see it's possible."

If Obama wins the election on November 4th, he won't just become the first African-American president but the first black leader of a predominantly white country in modern times. Some 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, many Americans believe they are on the verge of at last shaking off the legacy of slavery, segregation and racial injustice.

"The election of Barack Obama will signal to many that race is now inconsequential, it doesn't matter in electoral politics. People will be under the impression that the US is an egalitarian nation where, if you work hard and you have the credentials, you can achieve," says Judson Jeffries, professor of African-American and African Studies at Ohio State University.

"It's going to give some a false sense that we've come a long, long way and as a result, there will be some folk who will conclude, well, this race thing is over, there's no more work to be done. And if that is the case, that will be a tragedy."

FEW WOULD dispute that the US has made great progress on race over the past four decades, as prejudices have weakened through greater social contact between black and white.

African-Americans have made important strides in education, business and the professions and the black middle class has more than doubled in size since King's death. Affirmative action programmes have helped more African-Americans to go to college and removed some obstacles to employment and have helped black-owned businesses win government contracts.

The presidential campaign has seen few overt expressions of racism and Obama's path to the Democratic nomination was secured by early victories in overwhelmingly white states.

Glaring inequality persists, however, and black household incomes remain less than two-thirds those of whites, while African-Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed. Although the income gap has narrowed in recent years, the wealth gap remains vast, with African-Americans enjoying a median net worth of just 10 per cent that of whites.

Without the cushion of inter-generational wealth, the black middle and lower-middle classes are more vulnerable than their white counterparts to economic shocks and have been disproportionately affected by the current mortgage crisis.

Schools across the US are re-segregating, albeit unofficially, because of "white flight" from the cities and a backlash in the courts against affirmative action. "Why did they move? I think it was fear and, you know, stereotypes about what was going to happen to the school," says educational psychologist Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College in Atlanta.

"Not everybody has the wherewithal to move so what you end up with is poor white people who can't move and poor people of colour who can't move." If the new black middle class in suburbs such as Maryland's Prince George's County is struggling, the African-American poor are caught in a nightmare of exclusion, violence and neglect.

Black men between the ages of 15 and 25 are 15 times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts and although African-Americans make up only 12 per cent of the US population, half of the country's murder victims are black men. African-American men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites and, on average, they serve a longer sentence for the same crimes.

Some 40 per cent of the US prison population is black and one in eight black men in their 20s is behind bars on any given day. According to the Sentencing Project, which campaigns for criminal-justice reform, one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison if current trends continue.

The incarceration of so many black men is one reason why nearly 70 per cent of African-American children are born to single mothers, compared to just over a quarter of white children.

In his remarks on race during the campaign, Barack Obama has dwelt less on structural inequality than on personal responsibility, urging black men to play a bigger role in their children's lives and telling parents to turn off the TV and help with their kids' homework.

"For an African-American running for the presidency or a high-profile, state-wide office, you have to convey the message of personal and social responsibility," says Jeffries.

"You can't belabour the point about structural inequality because if you do, that will rub many white voters up the wrong way. It will also rub many white donors up the wrong way. So you have to downplay the fact that institutional racism is entrenched. You can't talk about those things."

CONCERNED BLACK MEN is a group of volunteers across the US which steps in where fathers fail, offering mentoring programmes aimed at keeping young people in school and out of trouble.

"A young man will identify with another man. The question is, what kind of man is he going to identify with?" says the group's executive director, George Garrow. "If they don't have positive role models to help keep them on track, help to identify their strengths and work on these strengths, they're going to identify other people who will provide things to them. That's how gang and crew membership begins. There are young men in those gangs who provide those young people with something that they're not getting in other places."

Concerned Black Men's programmes are based on a youth-development model that focuses on each young person's strengths and potential rather than their failures or transgressions. Garrow believes that Obama's election could help many young black men to gain confidence and expand their own horizons, not least because of the candidate's own biography.

"His background is not unlike a lot of the young men we work with. He came essentially from a broken family. His father was not in his life. He only met his father one time, really, when he was 10 years old. His mother was away for a period of time and as he got older he was raised by his grandparents," he says.

"So for him to achieve what he has achieved in life, coming from that kind of background, is a good lesson, an instructional lesson that we can help young people grasp, that your background doesn't necessarily dictate where you're going to end up in life. The world is not necessarily going to reject you. That's the message that we try to deliver to young people anyway. I think it's going to be made easier if the president of the United States, who looks like them, had that kind of life."

DESPITE HIS LEAD in the polls, some Democrats fear that Obama could lose the election by falling victim to the "Wilder effect", named after Virginia's L Douglas Wilder, who became the first black governor of a US state in 1990. Wilder had a comfortable lead in the polls just before the election but he won by less than half of one per cent.

Political scientists believe the margin was so close because some white voters who told pollsters they were voting for Wilder voted for his opponent. During the Democratic primaries, Obama usually performed as well as polls predicted and some analysts believe the Wilder effect has disappeared from US elections, but Jeffries, who has written a book about the Virginia governor, believes the phenomenon persists.

"It's not a relic by any stretch of the imagination. In any election where one candidate is Caucasian and the other candidate is African-American, you're going to see some remnants of the Wilder Effect," he says.

"Will that happen in the 2008 presidential election? Yes, it will happen. The question is, to what extent will it happen? And nobody knows the answer to that question yet."

African-Americans have registered in record numbers and this week, they queued in their thousands to vote early in Florida and other states. On black radio stations, in barber shops and beauty parlours, the conversation is all about Obama, even if many older African-Americans can scarcely believe what's unfolding before their eyes.

Few in the black community expect an Obama presidency to transform their lives but many, particularly among the poor, are hoping for an advocate in the White House who will recognise their plight.

Jeffries believes that Obama will avoid addressing racial issues directly if he is elected but he thinks the Democrat could learn from Wilder by tackling injustice without talking about race.

"When he went into office, one of his strategies was to pursue a legislative agenda that enhanced the life chances of poor Virginians. He didn't have to come out and say, 'I'm also concerned about black people'. We know that a disproportionate number of poor people in Virginia are black. So he couched it in those terms. Otherwise, he would have encountered a white backlash from which it would have been very difficult to recover," he says.

"If he is elected, I'm fairly confident that Barack Obama will go into office not forgetting his roots and understanding that there are a lot of poor people who are looking to him in the way that poor whites, poor blacks, Latinos and Native Americans looked to Robert F Kennedy in 1968. They're looking for a compassionate guy to come in and do what he can to eradicate poverty. In order to do that, he'll have to couch it in terms of class, not of race."