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.

“If he loses, that will be one of the reasons, because if you just made a decision based on the merits of what he has done, he would probably win,” says Henry Marsh III (78).

When Marsh began practising law in 1961, he and his clients had to sit on the “black” side of the segregated courtroom. He went on to become the first black mayor of Richmond, and has been a state senator since 1991.

In 2008, black turnout reached an all time high of 65 per cent, and 95 per cent of those African Americans voted for Obama. Although he’s sure to win a similar majority of black votes on Tuesday, turnout will likely be lower, just when Obama needs black voters most.

“A lot of African Americans felt their problems would get special attention [when Obama was elected],” Marsh explains. “They failed to realise that President Obama was elected to be the president of all Americans.”

African Americans have been hurt worse than any other ethnic group by the recession, in part because 60 per cent of their wealth was concentrated in housing. At 13 per cent, unemployment among blacks is nearly double that among whites.

Apart from Obama’s appointments of civil rights-minded officials and judges, “the Obama presidency has been disappointing for civil rights advocates”, says Gary Orfield, a leading expert on racial segregation and the head of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

“Because he is a member of a racial minority, Obama has been ultra-cautious in civil rights policy. There haven’t been any major initiatives.”

For racial minorities, the likelihood that the next president will chose replacements for one or more ageing Supreme Court justices is a major consideration.

“Those of us who work on civil rights feel this is the most hostile court in at least 80 years,” Orfield explains.

The shift began with the appointment of four conservative justices by Richard Nixon. A 1974 ruling banned busing between black inner cities and white suburbs to integrate schools.

“From the late 1980s until the present, the court has been rolling back civil rights, step by step,” Orfield says. “If President Obama wins the election, we can probably hold back or reverse the trend towards turning back the clock,” Marsh predicts. “If the Republicans win, you will have a rapid return to segregation and an end to affirmative action.”

On October 10th, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Fisher vs University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, a white student, is suing the university because she claims less-qualified members of racial minorities were admitted ahead of her. The court will hand down its decision by next June. If it rules in favour of Fisher, US institutions of higher learning will be banned from taking account of race in their admissions policies.

This week the Supreme Court postponed deciding whether to take on cases that could reverse a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which placed under the supervision of the justice department those states (most, but not all of them southern) with a proven history of attempting to prevent minorities from voting.

“These two things – the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action in higher education – are among the last major remnants of the civil rights revolution still standing,” says Orfield. If Mitt Romney wins, he says, “It will be a disaster. The Republicans have basically become a white party, and all their administrations since the 1960s have been hostile to civil rights.”