The New York Times recently ran a piece on Nevada canvassers for the Obama campaign. In lily-white rural Nevada, volunteers often find themselves facing voters more comfortable with the Senator’s policy positions than his skin tone. Canvassers have a number of ways to respond to situations like this:
“Among the people [the volunteer] found that night was Veronica Mendive, who seemed cautiously warming to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. But she had a thought.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudiced,” Ms. Mendive said. “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.”
Mendive is a persuadable voter on issues, but has a racial hangup. The easiest thing to do would’ve been to ignore that and change the subject — as canvassers are normally trained to do:
“Darry A. Sragow, a political consultant based in Los Angeles who has worked on various Democratic campaigns, said volunteers were generally trained to “shift the discussion from anything that sounds like it may be race-based to arguments that are working best for the Obama campaign, like the economy.”
This response, however, ignores the voter’s central concern. Because of this, some volunteers prefer to address the racial issue head-on. For white canvassers speaking to white voters, there’s an easy way and a hard way: the easy way is to assuage the person’s worries:
Ms. Vance responded: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” She went on to assure Ms. Mendive that she was so impressed with Mr. Obama the person, that she failed to notice the color of his skin anymore.
“I’m canvassing for Obama. If this issue comes up, even if obliquely, I emphasize that Obama is from a multiracial background and that his father was an African intellectual, not an American from the inner city. I explain that Obama has never aligned himself solely with African-American interests — not on any issue — but rather has always sought to find a middle ground.”
To summarize: White canvassers are using racist arguments to persuade white racists to vote for a black man. (In other news, dogs and cats are living together.)
There is an alternative tack: Challenge racist voters directly. One blogger over at Racialicious tells a personal story about converting a suspicious voter by literally asking “Do you think you are a racist?” After initially denying, the person turned introspective and went on to accept a policy pitch. Problem is, this is an uncomfortable lead. As delicately as you may ask the question, there’s a strong likelihood of having a door or three slammed on you.
Remember that the job of the canvasser is to win votes for a candidate, not to make racists think. From a cold-blooded campaign perspective, a sales pitch of “he’s not really black” is a lot more time-efficient than opening a dialogue; and asking voters to consider their own racism might turn fence-sitters explicitly away from Obama despite a receptiveness to his policy message. So while there is no quantitative data on this, bear with this hypothetical question:
Is it better to win over 2 in 10 racists to vote for Obama by assuring them that he isn’t “really” black; or to win only 1 in 10, but convince that individual to reconsider his entire worldview?
The morally upright person argues that coopting racist language to win votes sullies the outcome. On the other hand, a good deal of these racists live in swing states (Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana come first to mind.) One could counter that the American racial discourse would benefit more from witnessing an Obama landslide than from some young white liberal volunteers questioning the backwards dogmas of a handful of people who are willing to listen.
This is obviously a treacherous ethical question. The comments thread at Racialicious has more or less reached a concensus of “don’t pander.” (As inspiring as this is, remember that it’s a self-selected group…who are all reading Racialicious in the first place.) Obviously there are canvassers out there right now employing any and all of the three approaches: ignore, pander, or challenge. Which voters deliver on November 4, we’ll only know on an anecdotal basis buried beneath an avalanche of polling data; let alone knowing how many people seriously reconsidered their views of race so much as an hour or a week after their well-meaning canvassers moved on.
And yet, a note of optimism: no matter what the result, Senator Obama’s candidacy has forced people to consider this dialectic between personal biases and structural racism. Senator Obama’s candidacy has forced white liberals to ask this of themselves, while simultaneously asking it of other whites. And that, in and of itself, is some approximation of progress.