Election 2012: A Second Referendum on Race?

Notwithstanding the importance of the economy, the historic issue of race and race relations in America continues to be the common denominator in the elections of 2008 and again today in 2012.
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President Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a campaign event at Elm Street Middle School, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a campaign event at Elm Street Middle School, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This upcoming presidential election has been described as the most important election in a generation. Depending upon one's political point of view, the forecast for our nation is either bleak or full of promise and opportunity.

There is one issue, however, notwithstanding the paramount importance of the economy, that continues to be the common denominator of the presidential election in 2012, as it was in 2008: the historic issue of race and race relations in America.

Not since the Civil War and the failed Congressional Reconstruction thereafter has race been such an explicit or implicit national issue. "Race relations" principally, but not exclusively, between black and white America continues to be the 800-lb. gorilla in most American households.

Perhaps only surpassed by sex, is any public discussion -- or lack of discussion -- about race in America weighted down with more hypocrisy, ambivalence, fear and misunderstanding. In contrast to the end of Apartheid in South Africa, our country never had the equivalent of a Commission on Race and Reconciliation after our Civil War and as part of our the post-war "Reconstruction."

Obama framed the election of 2008 as one of "Hope" and "Change" -- but whether he or the Republican Party intended it, the 2008 election fundamentally was a national referendum on race and race relations in America.

This was unavoidably so because the candidacy of then-Senator Barack Obama for president. Neither Obama nor Senator John McCain planned their contest to be a national referendum on race relations. But it was.

Go back and look at the TV clips of election night in Grant Park in Chicago and scan the news coverage of assorted media the weeks before and immediately after the 2008 election.

The percentage voter turnout among African-Americans was the highest it has ever been in any presidential election. Indeed, there were anecdotal stories of African-American adults who had never voted before in their lifetime; but they registered and voted for Obama. They wanted to be "part of history." There were also African-Americans who had not voted in over one or two decades but voted for Obama for president.

Similarly, the percentage turnout among voters between the ages of 18-24 who voted for Obama for president was at an historic all-time high.

America was engaged in a national referendum principally on the relationship between white and black America. It was not lost or misunderstood that if America can vote for an African-American, it can also vote for an Asian or Hispanic. The primary contest with Hillary Clinton demonstrated that the country was also ready to elect its first woman as president of the United States.

The celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says:

The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. It is the great challenge to which all our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget that -- if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the very heart of our country, our history, our experiment -- we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper and wider.

The historian James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, writes: "Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life."

In an earlier blog I wrote that Obama, as the son of a white American woman and an African man from Kenya, and raised by white grandparents -- as half-African and half-white -- President Obama may be the first really authentic African-American to become president of the United States.

Fifty-three percent of people who voted in 2008 voted for Barack Obama.

The results of the referendum and four years in the White House since the 2008 has required both the nation and the president to adjust to this new historic circumstance. Obama has had to walk and continues to walk a fine balanced line between exhibiting decisive executive leadership without "seeming arrogant"; and concurrently exercising restraint of anger when anger might be otherwise justified, less he feed or reinforce the stereotype of the "angry black man."

Some of those who voted against Obama, however, have exhibited no reluctance or restraint in expressing their disdain for him as president of the United States.

During his first State of the Union Address, a white congressman, Joe Wilson from South Carolina, interrupted the president and shouted during his address: "You lie!" Imagine that being shouted at Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

Sarah Palin has described the President Obama as "shucking and jiving."

During the course of the presidential debate with Governor Romney, Romney shouted at the president to the effect "don't interrupt me, you'll get your turn!" Not even addressing President Obama as "Mr. President."

And, of course, who can forget former Governor John Sununu of New Hampshire, in commenting upon Colin Powell's recent endorsement of Obama, said that the only reason General Powell endorsed Obama was that they are both of the same race!

The above is but a minor sampling of a significant segment of America's response to Barack Obama becoming president and occupying the White House. There have been several additional examples of racist blogs or cartoons such as the depiction of a watermelon patch on the White House lawn.

Some people reading this blog may accuse me of "playing the race card" in presidential politics. Regrettably, African Americans today who comment on the presidential race are compelled to participate and "play" with the cards of race in deck that has been dealt to them.

Whatever the outcome of the election on November 6, America will forever be indebted to Barack Obama. He gave us an historic opportunity. He has enabled us to participate in national referenda to redeem, recover and reclaim our soul on the unresolved issue of race in America. Thank you, Mr. President.

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