White, black and brown —Rafia Zakaria

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Interracial marriages, like the one Obama himself is a product of, have increased rapidly and growth rates among non-white Hispanics have led the US Census Bureau to predict that the United States will be a ‘brown’ nation in the year 2042

On Wednesday, October 8, Barack Obama held a rally in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was the day after the second debate between the two Presidential candidates and a crowd of over 21,000 people waited patiently for Obama, undeterred by the cold rain that fell throughout the morning. Indiana is not friendly territory for Democrat candidates like Obama, the state has not voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson was elected in a landslide victory.But as many commentators have said, and will say again, this is no ordinary Presidential race and indeed these are no ordinary times in the United States. A look at the crowd in Indiana is testament to the extraordinariness of Barack Obama’s astronomical rise. Old African American women on wheelchairs are escorted in lines by fresh-faced white Obama volunteers recruited from nearby colleges. Sitting in the crowd, it’s impossible to miss the extraordinary size and festive atmosphere of the gathering. And all of it on a rainy day, in the middle of the week, in an America hammered by the worst economic crisis and job losses in decades.

Some of Obama’s advantage in Indiana can be chalked up to geographic advantage: Indiana is a neighbour to the state of Illinois, Obama’s home state and hence provides a degree of familiarity. Obama has visited the state no less than 46 times since announcing his Presidential bid, which has further increased his ratings. Furthermore, like the neighbouring state of Ohio, at least a quarter of Indiana’s state output is based on steel and automobile manufacturing plants, which have shed many hundreds of jobs in recent years. Indianapolis, Indiana’s largest city, has a sizeable African-American population which could be seen out in force at the rally held at the state’s fairgrounds.

While urban areas of Indiana hold expected support for Obama, the earnest attempt of the Obama campaign to convert even the most reluctant can be seen in its decision to open offices in rural Indiana, which is not only solidly Republican territory, but also has a history of racism. One such office was recently opened in Martinsville, Indiana, which has the notorious reputation of being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and where a young African American girl was murdered in a race crime in the late eighties.

Such is the story of the Obama campaign, and it repeats itself not only in Indiana, but also in other swing states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia, which have been Republican strongholds. While ire over the botched Iraq war and frustration over the seemingly unstoppable economic decline are good enough reasons to support anyone other than George W Bush, the fact that the “anyone” is a black candidate with a name like Barack Obama signals more than just a desire for change.

For one thing, his unique heritage, the fact that his father was Kenyan and Muslim (even though Barack himself is not) indeed allows two key prejudices prevalent in American culture — racism and Islamphobia — to be successfully employed against him. Indeed, they have been: both by Hillary Clinton in the bitter battle for the Democratic nomination and by John McCain. While Clinton refused to give a definitive answer when asked if Barack Obama was indeed Muslim, McCain surrogates have in recent days repeatedly brought attention to his Muslim middle name and even accused him of associating with terrorists.

Despite this cavalcade of potential pitfalls in his background, less than a month before the US elections, Obama leads McCain in all national polls conducted in the past few weeks with an average lead of 5.9 points nationally. It is legitimate thus to wonder if it isn’t the economy or anger over the war that has fuelled his rise but a genuine change Americans attitudes on race.

Most Americans under 30, Obama’s strongest constituency, do not remember a vastly segregated society where African-Americans could legally be treated as second-class citizens. Laws enforcing school integration and programmes like affirmative action have ensured that African Americans have made inroads into higher education leading to better paying jobs and much greater interaction between races.

Furthermore, interracial marriages, like the one Obama himself is a product of, have increased rapidly and growth rates among non-white Hispanics have led the US Census Bureau to predict that the United States will be a ‘brown’ nation in the year 2042, making racial whites a minority. Given this trend, perhaps the leader to usher in this new era of racial mixing where brown rather than black or white defines the United States is a man born of a white mother and black father.

One potential source of trouble for Obama, given that so many electoral predictions are based on polling, is the Bradley Effect, named after Tom Bradley, an African American candidate who lost the California gubernatorial race in 1982 despite having led in the polls. The reason for his loss, now being discussed in reference to Obama, is that in 1982, scores of white voters lied about who they were voting for, because they believed that opposition to the black candidate would be seen as motivated by race. Believers in the Bradley Effect suggest, therefore, that the polls showing Obama in the lead are similarly inflating his support and hence hiding the racism that will result in white voters voting for McCain come November 4.

However, if predictions based on polls are true, and the ebullient crowd of black, white and brown gathered at the Indiana State Fairgrounds is any evidence of Obama’s true support, then the time may have come — Bradley Effect or not — for a black man to move into the White House and lead a nation that will soon be neither black nor white, but brown.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com



Source: Daily Times, 11/10/2008

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