x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Bit by bit, racial prejudice is fading in the US

Much has changed in the four years between Barack Obama's two presidential victories, including the racial discrimination that at times marred both elections.

NEW YORK // If the 2008 United States presidential election was prematurely described as the country's "post-racial" moment, the recent election and its aftermath can only be described as its latest hyper-racial moment.

The political post-mortems have uniformly focused on how the Democrats won by appealing to, and mobilising, a "coalition of the ascendant" - Latinos, Asians, blacks, women, progressive urban whites - and how Republicans have shrunk into the politics of white identity as the organising principle for their base. It has become clear that a paradigm shift is under way.

But beyond the electoral calculus that is now front and centre, how does race colour everyday experiences in this rapidly diversifying US?

From the post-industrial Rust Belt in Ohio to the "buckle" of the Bible Belt in western Missouri, the changes in the American "heartland" are visible in the small fragments of everyday life.

One morning, after an interview with a geologist in southern Illinois oil country, I asked for directions to St Louis, where I planned to stop en route to western Missouri to visit a tiny Muslim community whose mosque had been torched during Ramadan.

"Has anyone told you about this area?" he asked. "From here clear to Kansas it's predominantly European-American."

Passing through the Ozarks of Missouri, my worst suspicions were confirmed: ubiquitous signs supporting Todd Akin, of "legitimate rape" fame, for Senate; churches with virulent anti-Obama messages on their signs lined the motorway; an inordinate number of Confederate flags were stuck on car bumpers. More shocking still was one radio station, which referred to African-Americans as "negroes".

Rural and ex-urban, not college educated, mostly southern or Midwestern, often poor or middle class - this is the America that Republican candidates rely on for votes and many within this narrow demographic are attracted by the party's implicitly racial rhetoric.

But in Joplin, Missouri, for example, this America is being subtly changed. In 2002 there were only two Muslim families in this city of 50,000. By 2010, there were 30, mostly immigrant doctors from Pakistan, and they built a mosque. There was a surge that year in Islamophobia spouted by Republican candidates during the midterm elections.

One reaction by some in this America to the newly visible Muslims was to burn down their mosque. Then, out of a sense of common decency, Christian values and embarrassment, there was the opposite reaction by others within the same demographic. Conservative Christian Republicans reached out to their Muslim neighbours, told them to rebuild the mosque and to trust them.

An evangelical Christian told me his son, after an interfaith dinner with Muslims, had become close friends with the imam's son. Later in my trip, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a Democratic stronghold, I saw how race was far from irrelevant.

Over-the-Rhine is a poor, African-American neighbourhood rapidly gentrifying. On the cold, clear morning of election day, dozens of residents filed into a gymnasium to cast their votes. Leading up to the election, there had been national media coverage of a self-described voter fraud watchdog group, closely linked to the Republican party, called True the Vote.

The group had been caught erroneously accusing black Cincinnati residents of falsifying their voter information. Under a new voter registration law, people so accused have to appear in court to defend themselves. Many did not, and they lost their right to vote. At the poll in Over-the-Rhine that morning, the official Democratic observer was irate. He told me that one of the election officials running the voting station was also a member of True the Vote and that he was unfairly telling dozens of black voters that they were ineligible to vote because of small flaws in their registration material.

"This is the second time they've done this to me," said one young woman with dyed blonde hair as she left the poll in frustration. Nearly every African-American person I spoke to told stories of people they knew being disqualified from voting in past elections.

Despite the best efforts to limit the minority vote, however, it seemed that this tactic was already obsolete. Later that night, at a bar only a few blocks away, hundreds of people of every race - but the majority of them black - celebrated Barack Obama's re-election.

 

tkhan@thenational.ae