“I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not…he’s an Arab,” said the elderly woman to Senator McCain.
“No ma’am,” replied the Senator. “He’s a decent family man.”
McCain was praised in the media and by Obama's campaign for correcting the woman without hesitation. But what no one seems to have picked up on was what an insult McCain's wording was to anyone of Arabic descent. The idea that Arabs are immoral or untrustworthy was an underlying prejudice that went completely unnoticed in the media. The answer should have been ““No ma’am, but even if he were it wouldn’t matter.”
Quick wording during a rally is not grounds for accusing McCain of xenophobia or racism, and you can't expect American politicians to worry about pandering to Arab swing voters. But this prejudice can still have an effect on an impressionable public, and it reveals how American political dialogue has devolved into tolerance of racism, xenophobia and narrow-mindedness.
It's a long-standing stereotype that Middle America has an unhealthy level of cultural ignorance. In reality this situation exists in most countries, so it's unfair to broadly label Americans as ignorant, but there is plenty of evidence that the election campaigns aren’t helping.
On the issue of race, the official strategy is to bill Obama as a politician who transcends it. An unofficial strategy that has been visible is to highlight his Kansan half and downplay his African half. Obama speaks of his single mother and the role she played in his upbringing, and of his World War II veteran grandfather. One voter was quoted as saying they would not vote for a black president, so they planned to vote for Obama’s white half. To the question of Obama’s race, the answer should not be “he’s actually half white,” but “what’s wrong with a black president?”
It appears that race will effect this election, to some extent. There have been many Americans who have expressed a fear that it would be unwise to elect Barack Obama because he would be assassinated by remnants of the Ku Klux Klan before his inauguration. There have been more that have openly opposed Obama's candidacy due to his race.
There are also widespread fears that even more Americans who won't admit their racism to pollsters or the media will express it in the privacy of the ballot box. This, however, should be distinguished from the Bradley effect, which is where white voters tell pollsters they support the black candidate because of a fear of being perceived as racist, even though they plan to vote for the white candidate on non-racial grounds.
On the issue of religion, a year's worth of mysterious e-mails being circulated all over the United States claimed proof that Obama is not only connected to terrorist organizations in Africa, but also a Muslim.
On the campaign trail, Obama has repeatedly had to convince voters of his Christian faith and deny any significant connection to Islam. The larger issue, which has gone unnoticed, is the utter demonizing of Islam itself that results from such a dialogue. In the years since Sept. 11, knowledgeable leaders, scholars, and journalists have worked to help the world understand the difference between moderate Islam and Islamic extremism. In this campaign, the words Islam and Arab have become synonymous with terrorism and evil, allowing the idea of a Muslim president to incite fear in voters.
Hillary Clinton earned some votes during the primaries because of that fear. The official Clinton response was always that Obama was a Christian, but the American public would have been better served by the idea that a President’s religion shouldn’t be relevant, provided they honored the separation of church and state.
The McCain campaign, with the help of friendly 527s, Political Action Committees (PACs) and media like Fox News, are stoking the fires. Although Senator McCain himself is not contributing to it, the message coming from his side has been attacking Obama's patriotism, connecting him to terrorism, and generally promoting his "otherness."
Likely a symptom of such campaigning, a couple of peaceful Obama supporters who attended a recent rally for Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin to have their voices heard were promptly assaulted physically and verbally by McCain-Palin supporters. The two young men were called "traitors" and "anti-American," and were physically attacked by a horde of seniors, according to the Boston Globe.
Cultural ignorance is on the rise for the moment, but perhaps, if he wins, the ignorant in America will finally see that the black man with a scary middle name, and a childhood in the predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia, isn't the boogieman they've been reading about.
Alex Leduc is a freelance columnist and blogger, as well as a journalism student at Concordia University. All his political columns are available at www.alexleduc.com