Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Hang that darky from a tree!" - Obama Volunteers Face Racism on the Campaign Trail

The Washington Post features a long and disturbing article today by Kevin Merida - "Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause."

Some excerpts:

For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: "It wasn't pretty." She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, said she, too, came across "a lot of racism" when campaigning for Obama in Pennsylvania. One Pittsburgh union organizer told her he would not vote for Obama because he is black, and a white voter, she said, offered this frank reason for not backing Obama: "White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people."

On Election Day in Kokomo, a group of black high school students were holding up Obama signs along U.S. 31, a major thoroughfare. As drivers cruised by, a number of them rolled down their windows and yelled out a common racial slur for African Americans, according to Obama campaign staffers.

Frederick Murrell, a black Kokomo High School senior, was not there but heard what happened. He was more disappointed than surprised. During his own canvassing for Obama, Murrell said, he had "a lot of doors slammed" in his face. But taunting teenagers on a busy commercial strip in broad daylight? "I was very shocked at first," Murrell said. "Then again, I wasn't, because we have a lot of racism here."

The bigotry has gone beyond words. In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: "Hamas votes BHO" and "We don't cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright."

At Scranton's annual Saint Patrick's Day parade, some of the green Obama signs distributed by staffers were burned along the parade route. That was the first signal that this wasn't exactly Obama country. There would be others.

In a letter to the editor published in a local paper, Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball explained his support of Hillary Clinton this way: "Barack Hussein Obama and all of his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don't know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can't convince me that some of that didn't rub off on him.

"No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office."

Karen Seifert, a volunteer from New York, was outside of the largest polling location in Lackawanna County, Pa., on primary day when she was pressed by a Clinton volunteer to explain her backing of Obama. "I trust him," Seifert replied. According to Seifert, the woman pointed to Obama's face on Seifert's T-shirt and said: "He's a half-breed and he's a Muslim. How can you trust that?"
How disgusting, depressing and infuriating.

On the other hand, I'm inspired by the young Obama volunteers who are out there campaigning in the midst of all these racist idiots. Throughout the primaries, I've been impressed by younger voters who are fired up about this election, getting so involved, turning out in huge numbers, and who seem much less concerned about someone's gender or race. Good for them.


Jeff said...

It's disheartening. Back in their heyday in the twenties, the Klan had their biggest membership in Indiana. In fact, one of my wife's great uncles (Claude or Harry, I forget which one) was a Kluxer in New York state.

You know, the first time I saw that photo was in my sociology textbook in my freshman year in college. It's one thing for a bunch of lynching murderers to be hanging around for a photo, but the thing I always found most chilling was the young feller playfully tugging on the thumb of his dull-eyed girlfriend. Now there's a fun night out on a date... Let's go for ice cream next...

cowboyangel said...

You're right - that's the scariest part of the photo.

Do you think this kind of ground-level racism is going to be a problem in the general election?

Jeff said...

Man, I don't know.... I thought the people who still felt this way weren't inclined to vote Democratic to begin with. I thought they'd already left the party a couple of decades ago, the ones that you would term reactionary.

What really frosts me was the self-fulfilling prophecy that played out here. The race card was played, and now it's being used as a rationale by the people who played it to stay alive in this contest. Then again, maybe it wouldn't have made any difference. Maybe this stuff really was latent out there after all.

cowboyangel said...

I thought they'd already left the party a couple of decades ago

Or four decades ago. I wonder how many of these people have been Democrats all along and how many are refugees from the Bush Republicans who decided to try something different? My feeling is that many were here all along but never had to deal with an African-American candidate before.

I do think the Clintons playing the race card will be incredibly damaging in the general election. It's given legitimacy to something really horrid and something that I'm not convinced the Republicans could've gotten away with as well if they had initiated it.

Liam said...

I still think Obama can change the minds of unexpected people, but I don't know about this level of troglodytism. The electoral math worries me a little bit. There has been talk about how no dem has won the general election and lost WV for a number of decades. That's not true -- Gore lost WV but won the election (he just lost the presidency, the idiot).

Still, so many things have changed this time around it's hard to tell. Tons of voter registration, tons of young people who will actually vote. They can more than compensate for the few knuckle-draggers who wouldn't be voting GOP anyway.