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Backlash Against Media Smears in the Heartland

The media narrative on the primaries in Indiana and West Virginia hinted at racism as the reason why Obama lost. There are plenty of Hoosiers and Mountaineers who won't take that charge lying down.

by
Ari J. Kaufman

Bio

May 16, 2008 - 12:40 am

On Tuesday, Washington Post associate editor Kevin Merida published a front page article ostensibly decrying racisim in Indiana and elsewhere based upon spurious evidence. Merida, an African-American and author of a 2007 book that was fiercely critical of Justice Clarence Thomas, displayed subjective journalism at its finest with this “news” story. He also revealed an agenda on the part of the mainstream media — used the following day by Ruben Navarrette of CNN.com — to demean and label as “racist” anyone not voting for Obama.

In his 2,000 word piece, Merida recalled his travels throughout the state, which included, as he pointed out to me via email, “hanging out at the Applebees bar in Kokomo and talking to Obama staff and volunteers.” He quotes local residents about their feelings towards Obama, regularly portraying their words along racial lines. The “story from the trail” he opens with is about a girl who actually postponed her sophomore year at college “to hopscotch America stumping for Barack Obama.” Her experience with someone who said “I’ll never vote for a black person” stands as the centerpiece of Merida’s theory of what towns in Indiana are about. In the first half of the article — which Merida, a veteran reporter, wisely realizes is all most readers read — he harps upon the “horrible response” and “anti-black sentiment” the Obama volunteers encountered near Wal-Mart and on street corners.

Ironically, later in the article, Merida notes that “Obama campaign officials say such incidents are isolated, that the experience of most volunteers and staffers has been overwhelmingly positive.” And he is even more generous by citing an Obama campaign statement in response to questions about encounters with racism that reads in part:

After campaigning for 15 months in nearly all 50 states, Barack Obama and our entire campaign have been nothing but impressed and encouraged by the core decency, kindness, and generosity of Americans from all walks of life. The last year has only reinforced Senator Obama’s view that this country is not as divided as our politics suggest.

Anyone reading the full article might then request clarification to determine whether the Obama folks felt there was a lot of racism — as the opening of the piece and its title suggest — or whether the positive experiences far outweighed the isolated incidents of racism. When the most liberal senator in America receives nearly 49% of the vote in a historically red state, the latter rings more true.

There are certainly racists and bigots in America. In the 42 months since President Bush’s re-election, I have visited all the lower 48 states and can tell you some level of racism exists in all colors in all states. But as a historian, I can’t help but think America is the least racist nation ever created, in spite of the stain of slavery. Many immigrants I know also concur. They’ll cite European history for ethnic insensitivity, and the racial intolerance in their native lands of the Middle East, Asia, or South America for examples.

In two years as an Indiana resident, I have been to 91 of the 92 counties in the Hoosier State, and have enjoyed conversations with all sorts of genuine folks who epitomize “Hoosier hospitality.” The three cities in question in Merida’s article — Muncie, Kokomo, and Vincennes — are all college towns, the former two with ethnically diverse populations. Muncie has a major land grant school (the very liberal Ball State University), while Kokomo is a working class city with a Democrat mayor. Vincennes is a historic city — Indiana’s first (and its first territorial capital) at 275 years old — and also has a Democratic mayor. No facts show these Indiana cities being any more racially insensitive than Eugene, Oregon; Rutland, Vermont; or Duluth, Minnesota.

In his tale, Merida conveniently leaves out mention of the 21,000 that rallied for Obama in downtown Indianapolis the evening prior to the primary. Many of the assembled were not only white, but small town farmers and “good ol’ boys” who made the trip up to the state capital on a weeknight. Do a few vandals in one small town change that? Hillary Clinton’s headquarters in Terre Haute mysteriously burned down last month while she was in town with Bill, and that hardly made the news. This would not be the first time some irresponsible journalism was done by the Washington Post about Muncie, Indiana, in the past year.

Merida’s observation that “a group of black high school students [from Kokomo] holding up Obama signs along U.S. 31″ had drivers “roll down their windows and yell out a common racial slur for African Americans, according to Obama campaign staffers” is discouraging, but any common observer knows that such things happen to the military in Berkeley or President Bush all the time. And despite what professors felt at the time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a warmer reception at Columbia University in 2007 than did John McCain in 2006 or Douglas Feith at Georgetown this past year.

Nonetheless, getting harangued by high school kids while you drive to work can be irksome, can’t it? And frankly, in Muncie, it’s totally understandable that people get frustrated with some 19-year-old girl, who likely has never worked or raised children, bothering them while they are getting groceries after a long day’s work. I would too, irrespective of political leaning. How do you think a preachy conservative inundating houses in the inner city with McCain propaganda would be treated?

Sentient readers should weigh these anecdotes alongside the tens of thousands of incidents where people say they are voting for Obama because of his race or the fact that 90% of the black vote is going his way.

Latest numbers show that well over 90% of Americans are upset by the racism of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Combine that with Obama’s hard left politics and connections with radical organizations and you have the source of many Americans’ anger. This is why polls show nearly half of Hoosier Democrats, as in most states, now find Obama untrustworthy. Race is rarely mentioned, unless the media is doing so. And again, to his credit, Obama agrees. Only one in six West Virginians said race played a factor when they voted Tuesday. Indiana’s numbers were the same.

Many have simply judged the content of Mr. Obama’s character or his lack of leadership experience. On that basis, they believe he is unqualified for the highest office in the world. Most folks I know who do not support Obama would gladly vote for a black man if he were the right person. Most often, names like Colin Powell, J.C. Watts, Lynn Swann, Alan Keyes, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams come up, as they do in Merida’s piece toward the end.

Will this election reach the point where any and all criticism or opposition to Barack Obama will be labeled “racism”? It seems the Illinois senator still prefers to avoid that. What the Washington Post article — by dropping in nothing more than a few random stories — really shows is that if Obama ultimately loses in the fall, it will be due to his views, inexperience, and lack of authenticity, not because of his skin color.

Seems Barack knows this, as do most Hoosiers and Americans. It’s time for the media to admit it, too.

Ari Kaufman resides in Indianapolis where he is a military historian and an Associate Fellow at the Sagamore Institute. A former Los Angeles schoolteacher, he is the author of Reclamation: Saving our schools starts from within.

A former California schoolteacher and Indiana military historian, Ari Kaufman now resides in Minnesota and does public relations.
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