Election 2008: The Issue of Race

October 22, 2008

Language used at some McCain/Palin rallies has raised questions about racial bias in the 2008 presidential election. A student reading is followed by discussion questions and a student activity.

The language used at rallies with Senator McCain and Governor Palin has raised questions about stereotyping and racial bias in the 2008 presidential election. Discussion of this issue spilled over into the third and final presidential debate. The student reading below deals with this subject and is followed by discussion questions and a student activity.

Because the issues are controversial, the teacher might find useful "Teaching on Controversial Issues."  See also at this site Senator Obama's discussion of Reverend Wright and the experience of African-Americans in America in "A More Perfect Union: Examining Senator Obama's Speech on Race."

Student Reading:

Race as an Election Issue

Comments from four Republicans who participated in a Sarah Palin rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio

"Most guys I know are for McCain, and a lot of it's because of race. Obama doesn't have the right friends-that Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers the terrorist. The thing is, Obama may be better for jobs. But a lot of us don't trust him." —John Schuster

"I hear he's Muslim. And he just doesn't sound pro-U.S.A." —Burton Reed

"The bottom line is, he isn't one of us, and I'm scared to death of him." —Lloyd Wood

"I think the country is ready for a black president, but a lot of people around here may not be. I just hope that whoever we elect, we all have faith that the person will do the best he can." —Matt Miller

(Quotes are from "Race Remains Campaign Issue, but Not a Clear One," New York Times, 10/13/08)

Crowd behavior at McCain-Palin rallies

At one rally, Sarah Palin said of Obama: "Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country." She was referring to Bill Ayers, a Chicago educator and reformer who about 40 years ago was a member of the Weather Underground, a group that set off bombs to protest the Vietnam War.

After another Palin speech in which she referred to Obama, someone called out, "Kill him." During one of McCain's speeches attacking Obama, a person in the audience yelled "Terrorist!" Twice in early October individuals who introduced McCain referred to his opponent as Barack Hussein Obama, emphasizing his middle name, which is a common Arabic name. The candidates did not comment on these shouts or introductions.

But when a woman called Obama an Arab, McCain took the microphone from her hands and said, "He is a decent family man that I happen to have differences with on fundamental issues."

The Lewis accusations

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, an African American and a long-time civil rights leader, accused McCain and Palin of firing up hatred. "What I am seeing," he declared, "reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Senator McCain and Governor Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.

"George Wallace [a segregationist Alabama governor and 1968 presidential candidate] never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama [by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963]." (10/11/08)

The candidates' responses

During his third debate with Obama, McCain reacted to the Lewis attack, stating, "I regret some of the negative aspects of both campaigns....One of them happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect...Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful. And, Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks."

Obama replied that Congressman Lewis, "unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the...reports indicated [that there was] shouting when my name came up, things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him,' and that your running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say, 'Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line'....

"I do think that he [Lewis] inappropriately drew a comparison between what was happening there and what had happened during the civil rights movement, and we immediately put out a statement saying that we don't think that comparison is appropriate....And, in fact, afterwards, Congressman Lewis put out a similar statement saying that he had probably gone over the line."

McCain replied, "Let me just say categorically I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies. Whenever you get a large rally of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people, you're always going to have some fringe people. You know that. And I've—and we've always said that that's not appropriate."

Polls and race

Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, which regularly conducts polls on candidate preference, said, "How much we are under-representing people who are intolerant and therefore unlikely to vote for Obama is an open question. I suspect not a great deal, but maybe some. And 'maybe some' could be crucial in a tight election."

Another recent survey concluded that Obama would lose six percentage points because of racial bias. This so-called Bradley effect refers to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, who was favored in the polls to win his 1982 bid to be governor of California. After he lost, pollsters concluded that voters lied to them about their support for an African-American.

"A further complication is the race of the person who asks the questions," Kate Zernike wrote. "Talking to a white interviewer, blacks or whites are more likely to say that they are supporting the white candidate; talking to a black interviewer, people are more likely to support the black candidate." ("Do Polls Lie About Race?" New York Times , 10/12/08)

"Many acknowledged that they and others they know harbor deep-seated emotions about race that may affect their vote," the New York Times reported after nationwide interviews (10/15/08)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How do you interpret a man's remark that Obama is "not one of us?"

3. Why do you suppose that individuals introducing McCain at rallies emphasize Obama's middle name? Is Obama a Muslim? If not, why do some people think he is? Would it make any difference to your view of Obama if he were a Muslim? Why or why not?

4. Why do you suppose a woman called Obama an Arab? Is Obama an Arab? If not, why do some people think he is?

5. Are uses of the terms "Muslim" and "Arab" in reference to Obama examples of stereotyping? Why or why not?

6. Who is Reverend Wright? Bill Ayers? What relationship have they had with Obama? If you don't know, how might you find out?

7. Why do you suppose that Lewis referred to Wallace and the four girls killed in the Birmingham bombing in his criticism of the McCain campaign? Do you find any evidence of racial bias and/or hatred in the reading? Was McCain justified in his response to Lewis' charge? Evaluate Obama's response.

8. What problems do pollsters report in conducting their surveys? Do these problems indicate racial bias?

Fish Bowl

Fish bowls are an especially good method for involving the whole class in one small group discussion when students have very different views on a controversial issue.

Begin the conversation by asking five to seven students to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that the group reflects diverse points of view. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl to create a larger circle around the smaller circle. Only people in the fish bowl can speak.

Begin the fish bowl by asking a question and inviting students to speak to it in a "go-around" with each student responding without being interrupted. Next, designate a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from the fish bowl group.

After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Continue with additional questions.

Suggested questions

1. Do you think that a presidential candidate should respond to such shouts as "terrorist" and "kill him" from a crowd he or she is addressing? If so, why? If not, why not?

2. If you think the candidate should respond, what should he or she say?

3. How do you evaluate McCain's response to a woman who called Obama an Arab? Would you have responded any differently? If so, how?

4. Do you agree with Congressman Lewis that McCain and Palin are "sowing the seeds of hatred and division"? Why or why not? Do you agree with McCain's criticism of Lewis? Obama's criticism of the McCain campaign? Why or why not?

5. Are you aware of "deep-seated emotions about race" that might affect someone's vote? If so, how do you explain them?

6. According to a New York Times /CBS News poll in July 2008, nearly 60 percent of blacks said they regard race relations in the U.S. as bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Four in 10 blacks say there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; fewer than two in ten whites say the same thing. How would you explain these poll results?

7. "The story of inequality is one of the maldistribution of power and resources. Racial inequality has persisted in American life not just because whites harbor bad thoughts about blacks but because the advantages that redound to whites through racial segregation, especially in housing and education, have yet to be dismantled. Despite more than a half century of progress on racial matters, rates of black-white segregation remain incredibly high...Nearly half of African-American children live in poverty, and there are more black men in prison than in college. Black household have on average only 10 percent of the wealth of white households." —Thomas Sugrue, an author and professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, The Nation, 5/12/2008

Based on your own experience, do you agree or disagree with Professor Sugrue's

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org