In Racially Aware Akron, Campaigns Playing Well So Far

By Steven A. Holmes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

AKRON, Ohio -- The pleasant summer evening was "Imagine Unity" night at Canal Park, home of the minor-league Akron Aeros, and was sponsored by a group of local ministers devoted to promoting reconciliation across racial, gender and religious lines.

Sitting in the stands along the right-field line, Judy McGovern pondered the question of whether race has been thrust into the presidential contest between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. Yes, she said, adding that she was not happy about it, and quickly assigning blame.

"Only one candidate is doing it," said McGovern, a retired communications specialist from Medina, who is supporting McCain. "Barack Obama is guilty of it, whether it's him or his campaign people. All that talk about how he looks different is typically done to make him a victim. I think that's wrong."

Such sentiments convince the Rev. Ronald J. Fowler, a black minister and Obama supporter, that the candidate will raise race only gingerly in the future.

"I think the intent on Obama's part was to use a little humor to try to make a point that being different sometimes is viewed as a liability when it's really an asset," said Fowler, one of the ministers behind Imagine Unity, as he sat in the office of the Rev. Knute Larson, a white evangelical minister and close friend.

"He did open the door, but I don't think he was trying to make that an issue. That's the last thing that Obama needs to do is to come out and remind people that 'I'm black.' If anything, he needs to do the very opposite -- 'I'm American' -- and to stick with that."

In a presidential campaign that features the first African American to secure the nomination of a major party, the issue of race has bubbled beneath the surface like magma waiting to burst through a fissure.

Many thought that time had come a few weeks back. The McCain campaign aired an anti-Obama commercial featuring Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, two white, female celebrities, and drew criticism that it was racially tinged. Then, Obama said his Republican opponent would point out that he does not "look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills," a comment that prompted the McCain campaign to accuse the Democrat of playing the "race card."

Both campaigns have since backed away from the touchy issue of race. In a series of interviews in this northeast Ohio city, which has aggressively engaged in efforts to promote racial harmony, people expressed satisfaction over the absence of racial themes in the contest and generally blamed the news media for periodically focusing on the matter.

"I really don't think race is being injected in the campaign at all, and I'm really glad that it's not," said Leila Lualdi, a software marketer who is white and an Obama supporter, as she chomped on a burrito at a Chipotle in the city's trendy Highland Square neighborhood. "I think the people who are injecting it are the ones who have to fill a 24-hour news cycle."

Todd McKenney said he is relieved about the racial discourse of the presidential campaign so far, but he is mightily worried about its future tone.

An independent who unsuccessfully ran for municipal judge last year as a Republican, McKenney said he didn't think the Paris Hilton-Britney Spears ad had much to do with race. He said he thought Obama's "dollar bills" assertion was unfair but a slip of the tongue.

But he said that as the race intensifies after the conventions, tougher rhetoric will be more the norm.

"My concern in this campaign is that these things are going to get spun out, and they are going to generate more confusion in an already-tough area," said McKenney, a lawyer who has yet to decide whom he'll support. "I think that before the election, that will happen."

So far, few polls have measured the extent to which the public thinks race has been actively injected into the campaign. In a recent Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll, 48 percent of respondents said they did not think either candidate was using race as an issue. Of those who did, 28 percent said Obama was using it (13 percent said in a positive way, 15 percent in a negative way), while 15 percent said McCain was injecting it into the campaign (3 percent said positively, 12 percent negatively).

In many ways, the poll echoed the views of the more than 20 people interviewed in an unscientific survey in this city -- a fact that may be particularly telling.

After the local newspaper, the Beacon Journal, published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Akron's race relations, civic leaders, businessmen and activists in 1993 established the Coming Together Project, an initiative that promoted dialogue across racial lines on issues such as health care, unemployment, and relations between the community and the police department.

The effort garnered enough acclaim that in 1997 President Bill Clinton, as part of his race initiative, hosted a national town hall meeting at Akron University to discuss hot-button racial issues, particularly affirmative action.

The effort has faltered. Funding dried up for the Coming Together Project, and it shut down last year. Still, some residents say the experience made many in Akron, where blacks make up 28 percent of the population of 200,000, more attuned to racial issues than residents of many other places.

"I think we're a little bit more heightened to racial issues than other parts of the country because of the project," said David Hertz, vice president of a public relations company who, as a 30-year-old night editor at the Beacon Journal, conceived the race-relations series that led to the Coming Together Project.

"Perhaps Akron is a bit more prepared for an ongoing conversation of race that may or may not come about during this presidential election."

Some involved in race relations in Akron say Obama's campaign offers a historic opportunity for the country to directly address race and issues of concern to minorities. So far, they say, they are disappointed that, except for Obama's speech in Philadelphia, made in the wake of a controversy over remarks by his longtime minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the campaign's racial component has not gone much beyond name-calling.

"If there's going to be a racial discussion, let's talk about how do we level the playing field for a number of these issues that are affecting our communities -- minority communities disproportionately -- such as HIV-AIDS, which is on the rise, particularly in the African American community; incarceration rates, particularly among black men; failing educational system; housing foreclosures," said Bernett L. Williams, president of the Akron Urban League. "I'd be interested in their urban agendas. I really don't care what they look like."

Obama comes in for some tougher criticism in this regard. Even though he lays out an "urban policy," which calls for such things as job creation and ending racial profiling, he seldom mentions those issues on the stump.

"Police brutality, racial profiling -- these are issues that people are reluctant to put on the table," said Fannie L. Brown, who for years was executive director of the Coming Together Project. She added: "But, you know, if he started talking about racial profiling, he's a dead duck."

Whatever issues are put forward, Larson, the white minister, said he prays they will be done so civilly, though he added that he is concerned that in the intensity of the campaign's final days, they won't be. "I'm always scared of what even nice people do with regard to racial issues," he said. "This could be a great time for this nation, no matter who wins. It is a great time. This is a great achievement."

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