Voters and Race

The race issue is sometimes better served in portraits, not polling theories

I mentioned earlier this week that articles about theories like the Bradley Effect run the risk of zooming out too much to look at what the numbers say—about how discomfort about race is still frequently covered up, or, on the flip side, how the Bradley Effect might be an obsolescent notion.

So The New York Times’s “voters on race” package is a refreshing reminder of the individual quotient in the race and politics equation. While the articles present a very narrow slice of the voter pie, they do handily fulfill the “show don’t tell” mandate, without trying to reach for big-picture conclusions.

The articles take a person-on-the-street approach, asking questions about race to different voters in a range of swing states—from whether it matters to them in 2008, to how it affects their views of the candidates, to how they think it might affect the outcome of the election. And while stories of this timbre can tend towards simplistic caricatures of a complex voting dynamic, it remains true that the more individual voices we hear, the more the overarching theories can be said to speak for something.

For instance, here’s a telling moment that follows the logic of a voter’s mindset, from an article about how voters in Mobile, Ala., perceive Obama’s biracial background. Reporter Adam Nossiter quotes a voter named Kimi Oaks (one of fifteen gathered at a Methodist church to discuss the campaign), who approvingly highlights the fact that Obama is “not a product of any ghetto.” But at the same time, Nossiter writes:

…she vigorously rejected the idea that race would be important in the election, a question met with general head-shaking from those assembled; Ms. Oaks said she was “terribly offended,” as a Southerner, at even being asked about this.

While one person’s words don’t say anything to prove or disprove polling theories of closeted racism, the juxtaposition of the woman’s two sentiments powerfully underscores the point that unconscious bigotry is indeed alive.

Likewise, Jennifer Steinhauer’s article discusses an Obama volunteer’s effort to assuage an undecided voter’s worry that Obama’s race made him untrustworthy: “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.”

Originally posted on the NYT’s Caucus blog on October 2 (and provoking a slew of comments), the exchange serves as a reminder of how the race card can be, and unfortunately has been, used in attempts to bring wary voters over to Obama’s side.

Here’s a snippet from another of the NYT articles, about voters—in the heavily white area of Buena Vista, Colo.—for whom race is often a more distant, almost theoretical discussion. The reporter, Kirk Johnson, writes: “the debate over race—and for some, the soul-searching—that Mr. Obama’s history-making candidacy as the Democratic nominee has engendered are clearly present here, just different… The lack of racial interaction made Mr. Obama’s race more of an intellectual concept, secondary to ordinary political considerations.”

One man, Johnson continues, admitted “voting for a black man was simply easier in a place where social problems were divorced from a discussion of race.”

It’s another small portrait, but again it prompts a bigger thought—about how a sort of neutral tolerance (by way of racial conflict in absentia) figures into the often-polarized discussions of race in politics.

Finally, a Chicago Tribune article has this poignant scene to offer, of two union volunteers in Clairton, Pa., deciding how to pass out campaign fliers to best serve Obama:

They refold the fliers so that Obama’s picture isn’t visible as they hand them out.

“We still have a long way to go,” says Doug Ward. “The main problem is that he’s black.”

Rachel Serbin smiles and says only one thing as she offers the leaflets.

“This is from the union,” she says. “It’s about your wallet.”

The questions these snapshots raise are modest. But if one of journalism’s goals is to inform, the information that can be gained from these on-the-street stories is important, if only because it makes news consumers think about the race issue (and other issues connected with it) in ways that polling phenomena, and reports on them, often don’t.

As a recent NYT article on the Bradley Effect stated, concern about such theories “obscures” the more important point:

There are plenty of ways that race complicates polling. Considered alone or in combination, these factors could produce an unforeseen Obama landslide with surprise victories in the South, a stunningly large Obama loss, or a recount-thin margin. In a year that has already turned expectations upside down, it is hard to completely reassure the fretters.

The “voters on race” articles may not necessarily reassure the fretters, but they aptly show, in shades of gray, what some of those complications are.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.