Confronting Bigotry on the Campaign Trail

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Campaign workers for Barack Obama have faced racial slurs and slammed doors around the country. In Indiana, one campaign office was vandalized. The Obama campaign has chosen not to publicize the incidents. Washington Post reporter Kevin Merida talks with Michele Noris about race and the Obama campaign.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now to politics in this country. Hillary Clinton's overwhelming victory over Barack Obama in West Virginia has revived a common question this primary season, how race influences voters' decisions. One in five white West Virginia voters said race helped determine their choice. On Tuesday, we asked West Virginians who they voted for and why as they left the polls. We heard a lot of this.

Mr. JEAN MORRIS(ph): Don't want Obama in there. I don't like his background. They're putting the man in because of his race, and I don't - I'm not ready for that.

Ms. JOETTA KUHN(ph): Mr. Obama doesn't have much of a chance here because they will not vote for a black man in West Virginia, and they can't stand the thoughts of a black man telling a white man what to do.

Mr. THOMAS COLDWELL(ph): Whether he is a Muslim, I guess he's - I guess it's just with everything that's going on in the Middle East, it's a little scary being unknown.

Mr. MORRIS KING(ph): You know I didn't vote for no colored.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: That's Jean Morris, Joetta Kuhn, Thomas Coldwell, and Morris King. They're all West Virginians who voted in Tuesday's primary. We should add that none of them were asked specifically about race.

Kevin Merida is a reporter for the Washington Post and he's been covering the campaign for months. This week he published a story documenting some of the racial confrontations and bigotry that Obama staffers have experienced during the campaign, incidents that are in sharp contrast to the candidate's message of unity.

Kevin Merida joins me in the studio now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Washington Post): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Why did you decide to write this story?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I've been hearing things kind of over the transom about some of the difficulties campaign volunteers of Obama were having in the field. And I went and kind of explored that, confirmed some of those incidents, things like signs being burned along a parade route during a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Scranton, phone bankers hearing caustic responses like, you know, hang that darky from a tree, when they're making calls. And so I thought that it was worth doing a larger story, and I just gathered more material.

NORRIS: How did you know if these incidents weren't just pranksters on the other end or if it actually represented some sort of trend or way of thinking?

Mr. MERIDA: There were just so many of them, I mean from so many different places. I mean high school students being called the common racial slur for African-Americans holding signs, people getting doors slammed in their faces. There were expressions of the kind of raw racism that many of them had not confronted before and I think they wanted to talk about it.

NORRIS: And yet with all the coverage of the campaign, these stories really have not been talked about. This - your story was somewhat surprising to many readers because we haven't heard these stories, these kinds of things.

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think in part that's because there has been so much euphoria and excitement around Obama's candidacy. I think also the nature of campaign coverage, it centers on events, rallies, really you have to kind of just be on the ground and, you know, hanging out at the bar at Applebee's in small towns, going places where you're not doing anything but just listening to people. But it really it was lying in plain sight.

NORRIS: The campaign office was vandalized in Indiana, and it was really ugly stuff spray-painted all over the walls, a flag was stolen, a plate glass window was smashed, and the campaign decides not to make too much of this, even though someone involved with the campaign said, hey, we need to report this. But the campaign stepped in and said, no, no, no, no, we want to keep this low. Why does the campaign try to keep these incidents sort of under the radar?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, because I think that they feel that the broader message that Senator Obama is trying to communicate is one where we need to bridge divisions. But I think, you know, also there's a political component to it. I mean, he has tried to present himself as someone who should not just be looked at through the prism of race.

NORRIS: How did the campaign react to your story?

Mr. MERIDA: In advance of it there were a lot of concerns. They had calls from some of their aides who wanted to make certain that this was a proper portrait, that they have been welcomed all around this country, and that they didn't want the - as they put it - isolated incidents to seem like they were the dominant experience. But the truth is that they didn't know about lot of them.

NORRIS: Do you have any sense as to whether staffers working for Hillary Clinton's campaign have faced ugly comments, similar resistance, faced any degree of bigotry based on her gender?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, yeah, Michele, that's a very great point, because I also heard from a lot of Clinton supporters who said people have said very misogynistic things. In some ways I think that people find it easier to say I will not vote for a woman than they - to say starkly that they will not vote for an African-American. You know, I think that that deserves a level of reporting that has not existed so far as well.

NORRIS: Kevin Merida is a staff writer for the Washington Post.

Kevin, thank you for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you, Michele.

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