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Column a catalyst for debate on race and politics

Exploration of GOP rhetoric about Obama provokes allegations of reverse racism, while some readers admit wrestling with bias that may be unintentional.

November 05, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Early voters cast their ballots at the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office in Norwalk.
Early voters cast their ballots at the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

I knew I'd be navigating a minefield in my Saturday column, which dealt with two combustible topics: race and politics.

I said that the Republican campaign, in the run-up to Tuesday's presidential vote, has resorted to a not-so-subtle nativist appeal that relies on racial animus and fears.

All that "It's time to take our country back" rhetoric you hear at GOP rallies makes me wonder just whose country they think this is. I know race-baiting when I hear it.

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The response to the column on public comment boards tended toward the ugly — as anonymous forums often do.

But the hundreds of emails I received revealed a divided but thoughtful populace, harboring fears and resentments as real as my own.

My column accused the campaign's rhetoric of creating a haven for prejudice, promoting Barack Obama's other-ness as a socially acceptable proxy for racial prejudice.

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Dozens of voters objected. Many took the column to mean that I think that anyone voting for Mitt Romney is either hateful or a racist.

That's not what I wrote, and not what I meant. But the implication offended readers, who accused me of race-baiting.

"I do not yet know who I will vote for, but to suggest that if I lean toward Romney it is racist is inappropriate," wrote Sam Wild. "Please appreciate that there are idiots, morons, imbeciles and just plain dopes in the fringes of both parties, and to focus only on the Romney jerks is polarizing."

::

Readers in that camp insist that opposition to Obama is not about race. It's about a bad economy, broken promises and the incumbent's liberal agenda.

"Because of the actions of a very small percentage of Americans, you used a broad brush and stereotype to classify whites as being racist and not voting for President Obama because of his race," wrote Vahak Petrossian of Glendale. He is not voting for Obama because "he broke his promise after the election" to acknowledge the Armenian genocide.

But some readers, in trying to call me out, actually validated the column's claim.

"You want to make it about a black man," wrote Gary Marquis of Orange County. "I didn't vote for Obama because I think he is a liberal Marxist … a man with more Arabic genes than black genes, [who] has failed at the job."

And then there was the guy who "hates your idiot Muslim president" because he caters to "radical libs."

Other readers endorsed my perspective, and said they too were disturbed by what they saw as unfair treatment of Obama — the candidate and the president.

"The ugly treatment afforded this president is an embarrassment for our country and me personally," wrote Sue Masengale of Rancho Palos Verdes. "As a 71-year-old I've seen a few presidents come and go. But at no time have I witnessed this degree of ugliness and lack of respect."

But others said that this kind of bare-knuckle brawl is par for the course in such a close race, with so much at stake.

"These election animosities are old news to me," wrote 81-year-old Mimi Loupe of La Habra. "As a child, I remember families and friends broken apart over Roosevelt and Dewey.... Get over this race thing. Get rid of the chip on your shoulder."

Some were more blunt, like Marsha Roseman of Van Nuys. "My husband and I fought for civil rights in the '60s. We are supporters of Mitt Romney. You are the racist, and your article is divisive and disgusting."

I heard that a lot — that I'm stirring the pot because I can't see past race to reality. I was offended, too, at being labeled a racist. I found myself countering with some shopworn version of "Some of my best friends are white people...." Now that's embarrassing.

And it's also evidence of how hard it is, when you're talking about race across a racial divide, not to come off sounding like a boob.

::

Readers told me they have experienced that feeling too. "Your column covered an issue that is never discussed in polite society … at least not in 'white' society," wrote Jim Brigham, who has learned to tiptoe around the subject with friends and co-workers.

What heartened me is how many people are wrestling with the subject, acknowledging that even unintentional bias can be difficult to dislodge.

"I've never been able to completely shed the sense of 'them' and 'us,' " wrote a white Obama supporter who grew up in a rural area "where there were no black people at all." He supports the president "because he's a smart, thoughtful man who has done his very best to make good decisions for America."

And yet, "I'm embarrassed to admit that I still see the 'black' first, and only after shaking hands and talking does that fade away, at which point the person emerges and the color ceases to matter."

That can be a hard point to reach as a nation too — but we are moving toward it.

Listen to this woman, "white, Christian, a successful businesswoman, and so embarrassed by the Republican Party that I hate to admit I ever was one."

Yet she feels "the pull of Romney's 'he looks like me' persona."

She went on to list things that she appreciates from Obama's first term, including affordable healthcare for her grown children. Still, voting for him isn't easy.

"Obama is different than me. His name is funny and he reminds me of things that feel scary. I overcome this unease with my intellect and my ... moral compass," she wrote.

"I'm sorry I have anything to overcome at all. Please forgive me. Because it is our country. Bless it."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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