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Kumbaya era unravels in campaign against ObamaElection of the first black president hasn't loosened nation's grip on prejudice, particularly with GOP's call for a return to American values.

November 03, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan ( R-Wis.), right, with Kid Rock, who sees President Obama's election as a failed experiment.
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan ( R-Wis.), right,… (Paul Sancya / Associated…)

She seemed embarrassed to tell me that she's voting for Mitt Romney, as if the admission might suggest that she'd been hiding racist leanings during our long friendship.

Four years ago, she voted for Barack Obama and made sure then that I knew it. She was proud to vote for the black man, to celebrate the history-making and imagine an America breaking free of racist roots.

This time, she said, it's not about race: Been there, done that. Now we can all go back — with a feather in our cap — to politics as usual.

That's the party line, anyway. And that's what we'd like to believe.

But whether you do may depend on the color of your skin.

::

Our reporters hear it often on the campaign trail, at Republican rallies that are blindingly white and steeped in patriotic calls to return the country to American values with a real American at the helm.

When those flag-waving voters are asked what they mean, their take on the president makes it clear: He's Kenyan-born, he's a closet Muslim, he has European-socialist tendencies.

No one is using the N-word these days. The "foreign" label is its proxy — a signal that Obama is the "other" in a nation trying to come to grips with seismic economic changes and unsettling demographic shifts.

My friend, who's white, doesn't see it my way. A few nut jobs with "birther" banners don't tarnish the Republican Party, she says. People feel scared and dislocated. There's something comforting about businessman Mitt, with his five-point plan and promise to return us to simpler days.

But I feel betrayed by the contempt displayed in this campaign; our kumbaya era has unraveled with stunning ferocity.

It's not just the cutting "send Obama back to ... Kenya" comment by the campaigning son of Wisconsin's former governor. Or Sarah Palin's patronizing "shuck and jive" line about Obama's handling of the consulate attack in Benghazi. Or the guy in the "Put the White Back in the White House" shirt at a Romney-Ryan rally.

One of my Facebook friends keeps a running tally of racially insensitive remarks; the watermelon jokes may have diminished, but the "you people" stuff is going strong.

It descends to the absurd sometimes. Like the claim that Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican stalwart, endorsed Obama only because they share the same skin color.

Obama's race does indeed mobilize black voters; his vision coincides with our interests. But black voters don't always lean black. Ask Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain about that.

That's the sort of stereotyping that makes it so hard to talk openly about the impact of race on our actions and thoughts.

Listen to Kid Rock stumping for Romney-Ryan at a Detroit-area college last month: "I also wanna be clear that I'm very proud to say that we had elected our first black president, all right. I'm sorry he didn't do a better job. I really wish that he would have."

Nothing unfactual about that. Obama is black. He could have done a better job. Kid Rock and I apparently share, at least, a sense of pride that Obama was elected at all.

But he sees the black president as a failed experiment. And I see a leader who was shackled from the start by the GOP's chest-thumping pledge to block him from success.

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It's hard to complain about racial slights without sounding thin-skinned. Just living life as a minority can breed a certain paranoia, a sensitivity to being dissed because of religion, nationality or skin color.

Still, it's not my imagination that Obama's ascent did little to loosen our nation's grip on prejudice.

Racial animosity has actually increased in the last four years. A recent poll on racial attitudes by the Associated Press found "anti-black sentiments" in 56% of voters, up from 49% in 2008.

Republicans were more comfortable expressing overt disdain; 79%, compared to 32% of Democrats, agreed with statements like "I think blacks are irresponsible." But the poll found that 55% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans harbor hostile latent feelings about black people.

If you've never been on the receiving end of those sentiments, you have the luxury of believing they don't exist. But I understand now what my mother meant when she used to say "I know it when I see it."

It's hard to explain to my white friends why I get teary-eyed sometimes just watching Barack Obama stride — like he owns the place — across the lawn of the White House.

My parents were raised in the segregated South. My father's family fled Georgia just ahead of a lynch mob. My mother came to Cleveland from Alabama, and used to marvel at the sight of "white and colored" socializing together.

And I still remember childhood visits to my grandparents' farm — being told to drink only from "colored" fountains and warned not to try on clothing while shopping.

I marvel at the road we've trod. How, in the space of just 50 years, has my country come so far?

In 2008, I didn't think it had. I didn't trust the polls putting Obama ahead. I drove to Inglewood on election night, because I couldn't bear being disappointed in Northridge. And when the winner was declared, every person in that restaurant cheered and applauded.

Some, stunned by the sight of a first family that looks like us, just grabbed the stranger next to them and bawled.

Those moments of pride overcame a lifetime of doubt.

Now four years later, my friend complains that hope has faded and not enough has changed to give Obama another chance.

And in the midst of this deeply polarized election, bound to reflect a race-based tilt, we're being asked to believe that the ugly Republican campaign rhetoric has nothing racial to it.

I don't. There's hope. But real progress will only come when we are willing to deal honestly with uncomfortable, homegrown truths.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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