Racism in the Election


The media is preoccupied with when and how the “race card” will be played in the campaign. But it is already in play for most of us – unconsciously. The real questions are how to play it right.

The basic fact is that as long as there is an unconscious, we will all be prey to racist thinking. It starts in the nursery when children learn to discriminate their caregivers from “strangers.” They cry or recoil in the presence of “strangers” and we can laugh, then, because we know that those “strangers” usually will be assimilated into the mental categories of “friends” or “family” – or else the child will learn to conceal and control his suspicion and fear. For most Whites, need it be said, most Blacks remain “strangers.”

In full-blown institutional racism, such reactions eventually get to be aligned with economic or social competition and amplified by group pressure. It becomes virulent and destructive. But even if society wakes up to the problem, even if discrimination is prohibited and opportunities for jobs and education are extended, the mental category of “stranger” and the mistrust it arouses will remain in the mind. It becomes a part of unconscious perception.

5% of whites in a recent survey said race would not affect their vote, but 19% said it would affect others they knew. “Welcome to the murky world of modern racism,” Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times on August 8th , “where most of the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to measure. As Obama gently put it in his race speech, today’s racial ‘resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company.’ However, they can be — and possibly will be — expressed in the privacy of the voting booth.”

For me, the frightening fact is that, often, it will not even be experienced as resentment. It remains as a vague discomfort, an undetectable shudder, an uneasiness that is felt but usually not understood. As a result it will be attributed to something else – but it will form the basis for action.

What we don’t know we know about racism is how much we still recoil from “strangers,” how hard it is to trust those who are different.