Perhaps the first sign that racism may not play a determining role in the general election was when the McCain campaign gave up on Michigan.
President Bush lost the severely economically distressed state in both 2000 and 2004. But some thought Sen. John McCain had a chance of tying Sen. Barack Obama to the scandal that cut short Kwame Kilpatrick's term as mayor of Detroit. (They're both black, y'know.)
But working-class Michigan apparently isn't as racist as some hoped. The McCain campaign last week abruptly pulled out of Michigan, telling the Washington Post that since Michigan is an "economic basket case," McCain can't possibly win there.
Racism, both subtle and overt, has not been hard to find in this election. But the economic crisis may be challenging racism in an unprecedented way. Instead of fostering scapegoating and deeper division, the urgency of the crisis is prompting a gut check in some -- to look past color and think about what is best for their economic security.
In September, The New Yorker's George Packer traveled economically-depressed Ohio. He found considerable racism holding Obama back, but also reported this eyebrow-raiser:
Dave Herbert was a stocky, talkative building contractor in an Ohio State athletic jersey. At thirty-eight, he considerably lowered the average age in Bonnie’s. “I’m self-employed,” he said. “I can’t afford to be a Democrat.” Herbert was a devoted viewer of Fox News and talked in fluent sound bites about McCain’s post-Convention “bounce” and Sarah Palin’s “executive experience.” At one point, he had doubted that Obama stood a chance in Glouster. “From Bob and Pete’s generation there are a lot of racists—not out-and-out, but I thought there was so much racism here that Obama’d never win.” Then he heard a man who freely used the “ ‘n’ word” declare his support for Obama: “That blew my theory out of the water.”
Politico's Ben Smith relayed a similar anecdote:
An Obama supporter, who canvassed for the candidate in the working-class, white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, sends over an account that, in various forms, I've heard a lot in recent weeks.
"What's crazy is this," he writes. "I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are f***ing undecided. They would call him a n----r and mention how they don't know what to do because of the economy."
Recently, Time Magazine's David Von Drehle visited a Missouri exurb and found far less racism, with economic concerns driving support for Obama:
"I really wanted Hillary," said Holly Haggard, a purposeful young woman in tan slacks and running shoes. "Well," her husband Robbie quickly reminded her, "now we got Obama." He said this in a tone of voice that made me think he wasn't too happy about the fact.
If this story had been written a few months ago, that exchange might have been the gist of it -- white working-class voters left cold by Barack Obama. But then Holly came back with exactly the thing Obama might hope she would say: "Yeah, and we got $3.74 gas too." For many Americans, the price of gas remains shorthand for a whole world of economic woes.
Robbie's response this time was almost a sigh of resignation. "Think I don't know that?" he said softly.
I soon gathered that six of the eight adults standing in that driveway planned to vote for Obama in November. Their support ranged from enthusiastic to reluctant. And of course, there's nothing scientific about one driveway. But I heard similar things throughout my trip. Among white voters, Obama appeared to be rising on a pile of empty wallets. Many folks in Lincoln County shared that impression.
"Who do you think will win around here?" I asked.
"Obama," Robbie Haggard answered flatly, and several others agreed.
"But Missouri's always been Republican," [Tammy] Pyle protested.
"I think Missouri's had about enough," Holly Haggard said...
...at this late stage of the campaign, after dozens of interviews across this toss-up state, evidence suggests that the issue that once seemed as if it would dominate this election — Obama's race — is not consuming the people who will actually decide.
Beyond the urgent nature of the faltering economy, what else is causing people to reassess race? Not the Obama campaign directly. While Obama delivered one the best speeches on race in American history, he has not been interested in continual direct confrontations about race. During the New Hampshire primary, when asked if he would lead a "national conversation about race," Obama replied, "I'm less interested in a conversation about race in the abstract. All the self-flagellation, it's not useful. African-Americans get all riled up, and whites get defensive."
But some are leading that conversation. Union members.
As the New York Times reported last week, union organizers are making peer-to-peer confrontation with their memberships, to bring racial issue out in the open and make the case that our economic problems are too dire to let skin color and false smears determine their vote.
Video of AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka speaking about how racism should no longer divide America's workers has made a slow burn throughout the blogosphere, and illuminates how bluntly union leaders are addressing race today:
It would appear that the union effort, quietly confronting the issue on a peer-to-peer basis, is making an impact, prompting more and more people to put aside racial bias and put economic concerns first.
Meanwhile, the voices of hate grow louder. For example, see this video of conservatives at a McCain-Palin event, showing people openly calling Obama a "terrorist" because of his "name" and his "bloodlines."
The McCain campaign seems conflicted on to how deal with this dynamic. On one hand, the McCain campaign is continuing to play guilt-by-association games that have an unmistakable racial subtext. On the other, the campaign recognizes it needs a stronger economic message to turn the polls around -- evidenced in this week's debate by McCain's lack of smear-based attacks and unveiling of a new mortgage proposal.
If the crumbling economy is pushing America further past racism, McCain needs to tune out the disturbing hate coming from his unruly crowds and seek to beat Obama on who is best for the economy. To conclude that economically suffering states like Michigan are unwinnable for McCain is to conclude that the election is unwinnable for McCain.
Because none of the above is to say that only the election victory of Obama is proof that America is moving beyond racism. Only that the economic needs of America are proving to be paramount to most voters.
In the Democratic primary, sexism was prevalent. But in the end, Sen. Hillary Clinton was not held back by gender and judged as capable to be president. The glass ceiling was shattered by her candidacy even if she eventually lost.
Similarly, we may be having an election where Obama is at least judged by most to be capable to be president, in particular in regards to the economy, putting the final decision back on issues where they belong. Because so far, Obama has been making his case, even to those uncomfortable with the idea of black president, that he has the superior economic skills.
McCain is a gambler, but it's a bad bet to cede the economic argument to Obama in this environment. Better to recognize that racial attitudes may be in the midst of a major shift, junk the old race card tricks, and make a stand on the economy.