Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blue Collar Bigotry in US Presidential Race

As the election strategists, media pundits and "independent" analysts pore over the results of the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries, there is hardly any overt mention of racism, the big elephant in the room.

President Clinton has been making a skillful use of the race card in supporting his wife's bid for the presidency. After the South Carolina primary, Mr. Clinton compared Obama's win with Jesse Jackson's win against him in the 1990s. At a rally of mostly blue collar white audience recently, the former President said that the voters will have to decide whether they prefer "a feeling of change" or "facts of change" -- a clear dig at Hillary Clinton's opponent Barack Obama. Real change, he added, is especially important here Pennsylvania. As Der Spiegel reported in early April, Jim Miller, a blue collar caucasian member of the audience smiled awkwardly and said something that many here in Reading are extremely reluctant to admit: "There is still racism here." He points to the crowd in the gymnasium and says: "Many, many racists."

The recent reports of Obama's pastor's inflammatory speeches, and Obama's remarks about rural America "clinging to guns and religion" have not helped, either. In his "race in America" speech, Barack Obama talked about many issues that hit a nerve in a place like Reading. He said that when whites suffering from unemployment and poverty blame blacks for their misery, they are not necessarily racist. Conversely, he also said that discrimination doesn’t just exist in the imagination of blacks.

According to a report in Der Spiegel, the speech "opened Pandora's Box," said John Forester, the news editor for a Pennsylvania paper, the Reading Eagle. Forester is convinced that the speech put race squarely in the center of the campaign, and he considers cities like Reading to be accurate test cases on whether a black candidate can prevail. He is not optimistic. Obama's inspiring speech, says Forester, was "political suicide."

In my own personal experience as a South Asian immigrant, I have seen that racism is alive and well in blue collar white America, even as the racism has declined among better educated urban whites. The blue collar neighborhoods in New York, Chicago and other major cities on the East Coast and the Midwest are some of the most racially segregated. There have been many high-profile racially motivated incidents of violence, such as the Howard Beach killings and Chicago south side riots, that characterize life in blue collar America.

Recent polls indicate that as many as a third of those who voted for Hilary Clinton would vote for John McCain if Obama becomes the Democratic nominee for President.

As is often said, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." However, I do believe that better educated population is better for America, as it is elsewhere in the world. By voting for Obama in large numbers, the high-earning college educated whites have shown that race is not relevant for leadership. Education will help fix racism, poverty and many other ills in society.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, I think America has come a long way since Martin Luther King's civil rights marches in the 1960s. I do hope Obama wins and makes history this year. But if he does not, he is still young. He will get more chances in the future to rise to the highest office in America. Hopefully, America will be further along in race relations with better education and understanding among the races, regardless of class.

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