Election 2008: Racist Incidents Rattle Obama Backers

Kevin Merida
Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, May 13, 2008; 4:00 PM

Post associate editor Kevin Merida was online Tuesday, May 13 at 4 p.m. ET to discuss his article about racist incidents and sentiments encountered by Obama staffers during the 2008 presidential primaries.

The transcript follows.


Fairfax County, Va.: Your article has unleashed more than 2,100 comments online so far. Many are racist or at least racially tinged. Others are from people of good will or at least some thought who are getting drowned out by the voices of anger. So I'm wondering how you feel when you see all that. Do you read the comments when you write a story? Do you think The Washington Post is doing a service to the community when it opens the door to unfiltered commentary on such a subject (and supplies the bandwidth and software to host it)? Is it a good thing to know what's out there, or a bad thing to give these people a megaphone? I'm confident some are on a regular program of posting to such articles, either on a self-assigned "mission" or as political operatives. But I think a lot of others are one-time posters.

Kevin Merida: Hello -- thanks for joining this discussion, all. Let's get started.

Fairfax raises a provocative series of questions. Race is one of those subjects that exposes raw nerves. We have not settled on a comfortable mode of discussing it publicly. The online world, by its very nature, is the unfiltered world. I think tries to police the most egregiously, vile kinds of comments while not squelching free speech and the honest commentary that often goes with that. Sometimes that task is extremely difficult to carry out.


Fairfax Station, Va.: I volunteered for the Obama campaign in my North Carolina hometown and also found racism and anger with a few people. Those few who made racist comments, including one white woman who knew me and said "I'd never vote for a [racial slur]," are really a fringe element. Many of these people never vote anyway, and in any event never would vote for any Democrat for president. In North Carolina, they sometimes register as Democrats because their parents did and almost all local officials are Democrats in the rural, eastern portion of the state.

I found many Obama supporters among both minority and non-minority groups. Almost all white voters I spoke with were exceptionally polite and usually invited me to come into their homes. While the degree of outward Obama support among white voters was noticeably less than among African Americans, almost all were curious about the senator and what he would do as president. They will be open-minded, in my view. On the other hand, African American voters are overflowing in their zeal and hope. Turnout was phenomenal.

Kevin Merida: I think your experience is reflective of what many in the Obama campaign have experienced.


Arlington, Va.: I doubt you will answer this because it goes against the nature of your story, but there are people who just dislike Obama and are not racist. For every uninformed person who thinks that Obama is a Muslim (and then hates him for that), there are also people who believe his ties to racists like Rev. Wright make him a bad candidate. I already can see the media trying to guilt people into voting for Obama by saying "if you don't vote for him, you're probably racist."

Kevin Merida: There are certainly people who dislike Obama and are not racist, just as there are people who don't support Hillary Clinton but are not sexist, or who won't back McCain but are not ageist. I think when it comes to how people really feel about a candidate, what they are thinking is not always what they voice.


Denver: Kevin, great, great piece. What worries me about the potentially vicious 527 campaigns to come, and the McCain campaign's unwillingness to referee them (see Mark Salter's comments in Newsweek) is that somewhere on the campaign trail an idealistic kid will be waving an Obama sign, and he won't have the n-word thrown at him, he'll have a bottle thrown at him. I think 2008 can and should force us to confront what constitutes appropriate political discourse and the potential effects on people on the front lines, especially volunteers. Is there anything the campaigns can do about it? The O Team: A Response (Newsweek, May 11)

Kevin Merida: Thanks for the kind words about the piece. Both Obama and McCain have said publicly they want to run a different kind of campaign in the fall, one that does not traffick in negative advertising. How successful they will be may be determined by how vigorous they are willing to hold accountable and publicly call out those who do out-of-bounds campaigning on their behalf. It is true that some of the independent expenditure groups have interests and consciences beyond, perhaps, the control of the candidates.


Centreville, Va.: Thanks for taking my question/comment. I'm pretty surprised that these reports are just now surfacing -- particularly the vandalism to one of Obama's campaign headquarters and the bomb threats. What's your take on the underreporting of these incidents?

Kevin Merida: These kinds of episodes and experiences are occurring away from the media spotlight, which typically is trained on the candidates: what they're saying on the trail, how much money they are raising, what their strategies for advancing are. Most of what this story dealt with today is told through volunteers and others who work out of small field offices, who knock on doors, staff polling locations, man phone banks. This is the campaign on the ground that exists beyond the big campaign that most Americans tune into.


Washington: I am as jaded as the next person, but wow, I never even thought that people would run into this. I mean, we all have our own biases, but it would never occur to me to say them out loud. I'm not surprised that people wouldn't vote for Obama because he's black; I am surprised at people who actually would say this out loud to a campaign worker.

Kevin Merida: Regrettably there are still racist attitudes that exist in communities across America. Fortunately, there also has been enough progress in the country that the last two candidates standing for the Democratic nomination are a woman and an African American. In particular, many senior citizens who have been interviewed during this campaign have expressed surprise and gratitude to live long enough to witness this.


Wilmington, N.C.: We are all for Obama, but voted for him worrying for his life if he were to win the nomination and the presidency. Are we wrong to worry?

Kevin Merida: Obama himself has told people along the campaign trail not to worry, as has his wife, Michelle. They believe, based on their experience and how they've been received, that this run for the presidency is not a safety risk.


Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Your definition of "racist" behavior seemed to me to be overly broad. I'm sure plenty of people have slammed their doors in the faces of campaigners for white candidates -- it's rude, but not racist. I also don't understand this statement: "Susan Dzimian, a Clinton supporter who owns residential properties, said outside a polling location in Kokomo that race was a factor in how she viewed Obama. 'I think if it was somebody other than him, I'd accept it,' she said of a black candidate. 'If Colin Powell had run, I would be willing to accept him.' "

How does that indicate that race is a factor, other than demonstrating a willingness to vote for a black candidate? Your meaning wasn't clear. I also wish you had discussed more the implications for the general election, and I hope you're planning an article on Clinton and sexist voters. Tarring Clinton as the candidate for racists is unfair and prejudicial.

Kevin Merida: Susan Dzimian told me race was a factor in how she viewed Obama. The quote about accepting an African American if it were Colin Powell was a response to a question on whether any black candidate would be acceptable to her.

I agree that sexism in the campaign is ripe for exploration. As for the general election, I don't think this is the last time we will be exploring race in the campaign.


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Kevin, thanks for taking questions. Do you believe more people could vote for an African American named John Smith instead of a Barack Obama?

Kevin Merida: It's a fascinating question. I have run into a number of people who have cited Obama's name (all parts of it -- first, middle and last) as a barrier to them or those they know. How much of that is racial code language, we don't know. But clearly the name is one that conjures up "unknowable" and "strange" in some people, and Obama himself has pointed out it is a hurdle for him. But it is obviously not too big a hurdle, as he is on the brink of capturing the Democratic nomination, winning 30 of 50 contests so far and running competitively in national general election polls.


Natick, Mass.: Although instructive, I hope stories like these don't become a focal point, with "pundits" repeating them over and over again. It takes only few people to be racist and the whole conversation is off-track. The vast vast majority of us don't want this to be a election about race. Do you think the media (as if it's one entity -- but there is herd mentality) will keep these things in perspective?

Kevin Merida: I hope we don't overblow any aspect of coverage, but I recognize that sometimes we do -- we, collectively. I think campaign coverage is a daily amalgam of bits and pieces. You hope that the pieces in combination give the public an authentic portrait of the full reality of a campaign.


Los Angeles: Thanks for writing this provocative story. I've always thought this was a story just waiting to be written, and I wonder why it took the mainstream media so long. Another issue I wanted to address was the nature of the Obama campaign's response today. It was a neutral, politically correct statement, but it seemed to underscore his dilemma -- that he has faced real, visceral racism, but can't really address it forthrightly because it'd make him look like a whiner, or like he was playing the race card. It is a new brand of racism, in which victims of racism aren't given any room to complain, because if they do, they're simply accused of being paranoid or overly politically correct. This certainly is reflected in the comments on your Web site today. Your thoughts on this?

Kevin Merida: Thanks for the insightful question. It is very tricky to address race as a presidential candidate seeking to represent the entire country. It is trickier for a black candidate, I believe. In the past two months, Obama has been in and out of this subject repeatedly because of the controversial comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the huge volume of coverage about his former pastor, much of it uninformed and unnuanced. It is not surprising that there might be a sensitivity on the part of the campaign about a story that focuses on the uglier sides of the discussion about race.


Washington: Hi Kevin -- great article! I think Obama's candidacy is a kind Rorschach test for America. I've thought this all along. I think the election will demonstrate Americans' true feelings about race. The comments on your article are very telling. This country has a lot of unresolved issues with race. By the way, people forget that the man is half white.

Kevin Merida: Thank you for your comments. I ran into a federal judge in Pennsylvania, appointed by JFK, the third-longest-serving federal judge in the country, who said he wished Obama would emphasize his white roots more.


Atlanta: I am surprised by the people who are "surprised" that people would use epithets at Obama campaign workers. Perhaps it is because I have been black my whole life (35 years), so I see it as normal. My question is, why don't Clinton and McCain have to speak to racial issues? After all, McCain's family has been subject to racial behavior, but no one asked him or Sen. Clinton to comment on the Sean Bell shooting case in New York. It seems as if only the press and black people are required to referee the racist element of this campaign.

Kevin Merida: Good question, Atlanta ... others have asked the same thing, especially after Obama's speech in Philadelphia. McCain did embark on a tour of the "forgotten" in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and other poor communities, and Clinton spoke at the State of Black America conference commentator Tavis Smiley convenes each year, but neither has given a major address on race. I think black political leaders in general -- not necessarily Obama -- feel that the burden of carrying the discourse on race often falls to them.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Why is it that you (or your moderator) allows a question regarding how this race will demonstrate America's views on race -- thereby implicitly supporting the idea that if you vote against Obama, you're racist -- but you refuse to address the fact that a McCain supporter likely would be treated worse in many areas where Obama has his strongest support?

Kevin Merida: I think that is a fair question. If you're speaking of some of the black neighborhoods where Obama drew heavy support, traditionally those are places where a Republican presidential candidate would not campaign. Maybe McCain will be different. As I said in an earlier post, the Arizona senator was in New Orleans's 9th Ward.


Fairfax County, Va.: Kevin, were you surprised there has been that level of racism and incidents -- or surprised there haven't been more? As a fortysomething white woman, it sounds about like what I would have expected, and a quantum leap forward from what things were like when I was growing up. We have a long way to go, but these stories now come across to me like the remnants and last bastions of racism, not typical of the whole country any more.

Kevin Merida: I think there has indeed been tremendous progress in the nation. It was only 40 or 50 years ago when people blacks were blocked from going to the polls at all, hosed, beaten, etc. ... The young people who have been inspired to work for Obama are undeterred by racial intolerance, not defeated.


Kevin Merida: Thanks all for coming to this discussion. It has been a pleasure. Catch you next time.


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