• DOUBLETAKE 08: “Taking a second look at race and racism in the 2008 presidential elections”

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Does Race Matter in ’08? The View from NPR

News Analysis by Organizer CF

NPR’s Michelle Norris and Steve Inskeep have teamed up to offer listeners an in-depth listen into a conversation among 13 diverse voters from York, Pennsylvania.

Norris explains why she was personally motivated to produce the piece, admitting that race is often mentioned in election coverage but rarely given the necessary time and space to draw out complex and diverse experiences and subconscious feelings.

Upon first reaction- and having worked for NPR- I know that this more nuanced approach to race and politics is under appreciated and under covered in the network.

For that reason, I appreciate hearing white people embrace “an uncomfortable discussion” in which they are reminded of their whiteness for one of the few times in their lives and admitted to fear and discrimination toward people of color. And I was moved by the candid and generous offerings from Black participants in particular, sharing distrust of the American political system and astute observations about unspoken white privilege in the Republican camp. I think it’s important that white NPR listeners in particular hear other white people grappling with talking about their racial identity and the role of privilege in shaping their lives (NPR listenership is overwhelmingly upper-income white people, of which NPR producers are well aware… consciously or unconsciously this fact acts a framework for the their coverage.)

That said, many assumptions and beliefs held by white people went unquestioned. For example, one white woman, who said this:

“I look at Obama, and I have a question in my mind,” she says. “Years ago, was he taken into the Muslim faith? And my concern is the only way you are no longer a Muslim is if you are dead, killed. So in my mind, he’s still alive.”

REPORTER: Although Barack Obama has said repeatedly he is not a Muslim and has never been a Muslim, Moreland is still unconvinced.

“There is something about him I don’t trust,” she says. “I don’t care how good a speaker he is, I just can’t trust him.”

What is the underlying assumption here about being “Muslim?” Even if Barack Obama WAS a Muslim… why does it go unquestioned that “Muslim” is code word for “bad?” This is a moment where I needed to hear Norris or Inskeep push back, dig deeper… there is a racist framework guiding this perception… whatever the facts of Obama’s faith, is she being asked to examine the deeper implications of what she’s saying about Muslim people?

In the Morning Edition version, participants engaged a conversation about fear of Black men. “Is there anyone else in theroom that has had to confront that fear in themselves?” asks NPR’s Michelle Norris. A Black man responds: he had a fear of Black men because he internalized the fear of the other students at a mostly white boarding school where he attended.

Then, the disappointing moment… Michelle Norris says “I want to flip the question around…. Do Black people make too much of discrimination?”

What frustrated me hear was that the question was NOT flipped: “Who here has had to confront in themselves a fear of white men?” Fear of Black men is a commonly accepted racist stereotype, apparently. The facilitators had the opportunity to reject this racism and turn the conversation on it’s head here– and draw out the fear of white people experienced by many people of color in this country. That, too, is something white listeners need to bear witness too. Instead, the question was back on Black people to defend their experiences of discrimination.

In the end, the series does ask listeners to look at themselves, to not take their world view for granted, and to dig into the deeper realms of our fears around race:

Does race matter on a subconscious level? There was a series of exasperated utterances of “Yes.”

And that raises one last question: Just how much are people aware of their biases or fears?

Cal Weary — black drama teacher, former Bush backer, current Obama supporter — says deep divisions on race might always be an obstacle.

“When someone asks the question like, ‘Is America ready for a black president?’ They’re saying, ‘Has American forgotten what it’s done to black people?’ and ‘Have the black people forgotten what has been done to them?'” Weary says. “Is he going to be able to go in there and be respected? Because they’re still making comments like: ‘Oh, but he’s so well-spoken,’ and ‘Oh my goodness, he’s different than the rest.'”

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