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On Race and Elections

I lost a friend on Tuesday (and no, it wasn’t America). To be fair, it was more of an acquaintance; I barely knew her. But we’ve been in touch on a superficial level for quite some time–facebook friends, IMs, text messages. She often checked in on me while I was deployed, and just last week I frequently checked in on her while she was stranded in a flooding, powerless house in New Jersey. Our communications were more frequent than they were deep, though, and we almost never actually saw each other. Still, I considered her a friend on some level and planned to visit her soon. That was before election day.

I have to start out by explaining that I really hate when race is brought into conversations. I know that it is still more of an issue than many in America want to admit, but I also feel that it is less of an issue than many people allow it to become. I think that frequently, race is brought up in conversations where it has little or no place–such as recent assertions in the sports world that the “only” grounds for comparison between rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and 2nd-year quarterback Cam Newton is that they are both black. The fact that the two both accomplished a statistical feat that hadn’t been done since the 1940s obviously is no basis for comparison. But I digress. The point is that I don’t like it when race is made to be a central factor on topics around which I think race is probably only a fringe factor. And that’s why I’m so reluctant to say that this election–and elections in general these days–really are a racial issue.

That brings me back to my friend–well, the girl who was my friend. The morning of the election, she wanted to talk about how I was voting. She’s a registered Republican, so I knew that she would be disappointed with my choice. But I had absolutely no idea what was coming next. It started with quips such as “Obama only won because he’s black.” I believe strongly that the only way to draw people out of a bubble of ignorance is to engage them–and to do so tactfully and peacefully no matter your disagreement. The next hour of my life challenged that notion of tact and restraint to the core.

I was informed that Obama “bussed the monkeys and apes out of the ghettos” in 2008. I was told that the only people who vote for Obama are “ghetto trash, white trash, the Spanish, and the Jews.” I personally was told that I was “nasty” because a girl I dated in high school was half-black. And of course, I was fed the line “I have plenty of black friends.” I attempted at great length to get to the root of how she could say such things and then work with and socialize with black people. I tried to find out if she ever shared any of these views. She told me that she knows that she is racist, she doesn’t care, and that “plenty of people” feel that way–they just don’t admit it.

We’ve all seen the racist anti-Obama Twitter feeds (do NOT follow that link unless you want to see very offensive, NSFW language), but this was the first time I have ever experienced such things first-hand; things said not just to draw attention to yourself or to be “funny” on the faceless internet, but as a core belief unshakably being hurled at me by someone I actually know. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to being speechless. And the story ended when, before I regrouped, she ended our “facebook friendship” out of contempt that I am not a racist. This last step fully blew my mind. I had just lost a friend–one that I would have cut from my life anyway–because she decided that she could not carry on a relationship of any kind with someone so tolerant.

Alright, I know. This is all anecdotal. I am in no way asserting that this is the dominant rationale of people voting against Obama. There are plenty of legitimate reasons not to vote for Obama. But a friend of mine currently in Europe informed me that in Ireland, the election is being covered largely on the basis of race. And then the aforementioned conversation happened. And then I watched the election results and reactions. More and more, I could not avoid hearing about and thinking about race–but in a wholly different context than outright racism. The dominant discussion about electoral math has now become one of demographics. And while women had their day in the sun during the election, the Hispanic vote and the “minority vote” are winning the conversation about the future, most famously summed up by Bill O’Reilly’s statement that “the white establishment is now the minority.

What shocks me about these conversations is how taken for granted it is that racial voting blocs will remain in tact. The idea that Obama might help usher in the beginning of a post-racial society–even by the most conservative estimates of what that phrase means–are all but a joke now. Lost in the conversation is an effort to level the field to an extent that ethnicity ceases to be an electoral fault line. Conversations about “getting the Hispanic vote” seem to revolve around how best to pander and which issues are most welcoming of the group–as a whole. It all leads me to believe that in regards to race relations–both structural and social–we not only aren’t moving ahead but may even be taking a step back.

A very wise, close friend of mine often reminds me that it was only one generation ago that segregation and civil rights and race riots were the norm; that expecting the nation to heal from these fissures this quickly might have been too much. Maybe it’s not surprising when they bubble to the surface again from time to time. But my reaction to that (my hope, maybe) was always that it should be expected to subside within another generation as the last remnants of such a divisive era move on leaving behind a more tolerant, less wounded society. Given the discourse surrounding the election, I worry that we may be keeping alive these strong divisions for another generation. It’s rare to hear me say this, but… I hope I’m wrong.

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  1. Betsy Phelan
    November 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Max,
    I enjoy reading your blog. Though we differ politically, I’m glad to see that people actually analyze both sides of an issue before making a decision. I find it confusing that people don’t want to hear anything about politics but then they say you have to go out and vote! Well, if you’re not discussing/reading about the issues, how do you know how to vote?

    Anyway, I’m also surprised that this girl says she has black friends. Do her friends know how horribly racist she is? I want to make it clear that there are thoughtful, insightful conservatives out there, they are just the silent majority. I also know that there are thoughtful, insightful liberals out there, but they are overshadowed by those who name-call and are close-minded.

    I agree with the idea that it is more than a little racist to lump people together into voting demographics. I always find this pretty horrible given that we are supposed to be an enlightened society when it comes to race relations. I found the Lena Dunham particularly offensive to women. It assumed that most women are like Sex and the City characters. I’m sure that the insult I felt was small when compared to the insult Latinos and African Americans feel when they are all lumped together into groups like “The Black Vote” and the “Hispanic Vote.” As if all black and Latino people have the exact same experiences and thoughts.

    Good article. Keep it up. I enjoy reading about things that actually matter.

  2. November 9, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    This makes me so, so sad. Having been fortunate enough to grow up in a diverse community and was fairly insulated from outspoken racism, it always catches me completely off guard when people openly exhibit attitudes like that. This election has really been a painful wake-up call that such hateful racism is still so widespread. Seeing things like those screen caps of racist twitter feeds just floors me.

    I think a lot of people get confused about the difference between a “friend” and an “acquaintance”. It makes me roll my eyes when people try to use the “…But I have ___ friends….” line. I’ve personally had the experience of a rather painful conversation with a (now ex) coworker where she said “I have lots of gay friends…I just don’t want them to touch me.” Um…no, they are not your friends. They are just people you know. A friend is someone you have respect for and care about, not someone who you treat like they have cooties or are sub-human. Ugh.

    There was a lot about the outcome of this election for me personally to be very happy about, but all of the racism and hatefulness circulating the internet really cast a morose pall over the victory.

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