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The Race Factor: What Color Is the White House?

August 8, 2008

What was George Washington’s first name? What time does the midnight train depart? What color is the White House? Over the years I have repeatedly posed these simplistic questions to my children in an effort to refine my image of the aggravating and sometimes sarcastic father figure. Lately I am beginning to think, that for a substantial number of Americans, the simple answer to the “What Color Is the White House” question might require far too much thought as influenced by racial fear tactics.

It was Senator Obama who last week, rolled the grenade into the room, igniting a new round of discussions and debates surrounding race in this political campaign. He did this by again repeating a statement about not looking like past presidents on the dollar bill. I believe that Senator Obama did this intentionally and that it was a calculated political tactic. He is after all, a politician. His intention was to fire a shot across the bow of the McCain Campaign by informing them that he was aware of the possibility of their using “racial scare tactics”.

To some degree I would consider this a preemptive strike. On the other hand there was the possibility (that must certainly have been anticipated) that the McCain Campaign might respond to the shot across the bow aggressively. And that is exactly what they did. We may never know the actual impacts of the latest round of racial discussions. What I do believe is that Senator Obama wanted this battle to be fought now, rather than later in the campaign season when any negative impacts of the racial discussion might be unmanageable. This way, by starting the skirmish now, those who rhetorically think the “White House” is actually exclusively white, in terms of its residents and our political leadership, will be well flushed out and the racial impact well calculated and contained. Overall I think the impacts of this discussion will have little impact on voters.

There is no doubt in my mind that many Americans will cast their votes in November exclusively on the basis of race. Specifically, there will be blacks that will not vote for Senator McCain simply because there is a black dude running for President. It would not matter to them if the Black guy was “Chris Rock”. They just don’t want the White House to be white no more! And there will be whites that will not vote for Senator Obama because they want the white guy to win. It would not matter to them if the White guy was “Kid Rock”. They just don’t want “no black dude” living in the White House! These rigid voters will not be swayed and they are not the current focus in the racial debate.

There are many reasonable Americans who reside in racial and political “La La Land”. And that is not an oxymoron. They just simply don’t care much about politics or trust politicians, and the race discussion makes them uncomfortable. They don’t come home tired in the evening and “break their brains” reading political commentary in the newspaper or on internet blogs. They don’t analyze everything reported on the news. They live their lives and are influenced by information that is easily accessed. They are an underinformed voting group that can be stolen with the influence of misinformation that appeals to their social conditioning. They are the average American across a wide expanse of socioeconomic lines (not just poor uneducated people). They are the targets of political manipulations using fear tactics surrounding issues like race, risk, danger, terror and religion to name a few. Let me give you a couple of examples.

My own seventy six year old father, an educated man, told me early on in the political campaign: “If Obama is crazy enough to run I’m going to vote for him”. This statement is not exactly a strong commentary on his political focus. And my forty something, white, suburban “tennis chick” mixed doubles partner, told me early in the campaign season that she heard: “Obama took his U.S. Senate oath of office using the Koran”. Like my father, she was lacking in political acuity. But these are people close to me and people who unknowingly were grappling with the “what color is the white house” question on some level. These are people who were involuntarily succumbing to influences of racial scare tactics over reason.

In an effort to cover my “you know what,” I do want to point out that I know for a fact that my father and doubles partner are not racists. Further, I have taken the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with both of them about this campaign and the politics of race. This alone is a very positive byproduct of this historic campaign season. It is my hope and belief that such conversations are being had in a positive way across the nation. However, the dangerous impacts of “racial scare tactics” should not be under estimated. My father has seen too many black public figures suffer tragedy and my doubles partner has seen to many black figures portrayed as threatening images. As a result they both had become conditioned to believe that anything outside the traditional model of an “American President” was in some way a dangerous proposition.

I think we are starting to see a shift back to the issues now and without question that is where the Obama camp wants to steer the remainder of the campaign. But don’t expect that the subtle use of racial scare tactics will not surface again. There are still many Americans who are vulnerable to the emotional aspects of fear mongering. Those who are not particularly exposed or politically plugged in, and those who absorb and run with information which can be both outrageous and frightening. In spite of this, we are on the brink of discovering a shocking truth about America. The outcome of this election will be shocking! It will be absolutely shocking no matter who wins. And (fair or not) the reason why is because for many, it will answer the question that I have yet to hear asked: Are we still a racist nation or not? We know from historical political results that race has negatively influenced outcomes. What we don’t know yet, is how far this great nation has evolved. Has the spirit of the true “American Ideal” strengthened to now become our beautiful sunrise? Or will the storm clouds of traditional institutionalized inequity remain? For many this is the central question. For me, the visible streams of sunlight are clear signs of the passing storm. And this is a magnificent vision of social progress beyond anything I had ever anticipated.

It is clear to me that America has substantially evolved with regard to racial tolerance and the fact that Senator Obama finds himself enjoying such a significant support among so many White Americans is clear evidence of that. And for me this evidence of “social progress” is the basis of the overarching story that should continue to be enjoyed regardless of this elections outcome.

In the meantime, you might entertain yourself by asking these questions of someone you know: What color is the White House? Then ask them why?

L. A. Walker, © Leon A. Walker

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