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At Urban League, Candidates Bicker Over Race

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At Urban League, Candidates Bicker Over Race

At Urban League, Candidates Bicker Over Race

At Urban League, Candidates Bicker Over Race

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Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama both addressed the National Urban League this weekend. Casting a shadow over their visit before the mostly black membership was the ongoing finger-pointing over race. The campaigns spent the weekend going back and forth over just how and why the issue came up.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama took their presidential campaigns to Florida this weekend. The candidates both gave speeches at the National Urban League conference in Orlando. Casting a shadow over their visit before the mostly black membership was the ongoing finger pointing over race. The campaigns spent the weekend going back and forth over how and why the issue came up. But the voters at the Urban League hoped the candidates would move past it. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Thank you for your kind reception.

AUDIE CORNISH: John McCain drew polite applause for his policy speech on Friday. On Saturday, Barack Obama literally had them singing in the aisles.

(Soundbite of audience singing)

AUDIENCE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

CORNISH: Obama's birthday is actually tomorrow. But his reception at the conference of the National Urban League was practically a gift. The Democrat spent the weekend fighting accusations from McCain's campaign that he was playing the race card, and a handful of hecklers at another event questioned Obama's commitment to the issues facing blacks specifically. In his speech before the Urban League, Obama got to have his say.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We face serious issues in this election, and we have real differences. I'm not going to spend time assaulting my opponent's character. I'm not going to talk about Paris or Britney.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: The Democratic nominee hardly mentioned his opponent by name. McCain, on the other hand, evoked Obama's name several times. The Republican nominee also contrasted his tax policy and his view that opening up more offshore oil drilling has always been the answer to ending the country's dependency on foreign oil. McCain also argued that his education policy with its emphasis on training, vouchers, and charter schools was better than Obama's.

Senator MCCAIN: And if Senator Obama continues to defer to the teachers' unions instead of committing to real reform, then he should start looking for new slogans.

CORNISH: Where McCain ran into trouble with the Urban League audience was in the question-and-answer segment.

Mr. DENNIS RAHIM WATSON (Member, National Urban League; Motivational Speaker): Talking about charter schools, it makes no sense.

Senator MCCAIN: Thank you.

Mr. WATSON: It makes no sense.

Senator MCCAIN: Sure.

CORNISH: Dennis Rahim Watson of New York pressed McCain on education and the candidate's stance against affirmative action.

Senator MCCAIN: Now let me respond to that if I could. I'll do everything in my power to make sure that these well-educated men and women have the opportunities that they need and are absolutely our obligation. But don't you also feel an obligation to the next generation of young Americans who are growing up in poverty, who do not have access to a quality education…

CORNISH: And just outside the hall, televisions broadcast cable news reports of the bickering between the two campaigns. Both sides were alternately hinting and then defending themselves against accusations of injecting race into the campaign. So who was playing the race card? At the Urban League, voters like Dana Henry(ph) of New Orleans says the question is moot.

Mr. DANA HENRY (Member, National Urban League): Race is something that we have to deal with in this country. And there's nothing that anybody else can say to scare a voter into voting for a candidate. I think people already know who they want to vote for. They're just looking for some additional proof maybe to justify their belief in going with that particular candidate.

CORNISH: It's best for Obama to move on from this no-win situation, says Larry Hogan(ph) of New Orleans.

Mr. LARRY HOGAN (Member, National Urban League): If he talks about his race - how can I say it? - it would frighten mainstream America, that he's going to favor the black race. If he doesn't, he may get attacked saying that he doesn't acknowledge his blackness.

CORNISH: Hogan says both candidates need to get back to the issues. And the candidates yesterday said they plan to do just that. But other voters here say they fear this won't be the last time negative talk of race will rear its head in this election. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Orlando.

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A Conversation: How Race Influences Two Voters

A Conversation: How Race Influences Two Voters

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Trish Callahan

Trish Callahan, who is biracial, says she has experienced racism from both blacks and whites. Courtesy of Trish Callahan hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Trish Callahan
Greg Harden

Greg Harden says race is "too much of an issue in this country, unfortunately." Courtesy of Greg Harden hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Greg Harden

Read Commentaries

The two listeners interviewed for this piece wrote about the way race could influence their voting in this year's presidential race.

Trish Callahan of Maine wrote that she wants to elect a politician who is able to transcend racial politics.

Greg Harden of New York wrote that racism is more polarizing than ever before.

With Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the first African-American presidential candidate, the issue of race will undoubtedly play a role in the way many voters view the election. To kick off Weekend Edition Sunday's ongoing series about race and politics, host Liane Hansen spoke with two listeners, Greg Harden of Rochester, N.Y., and Trish Callahan of Portland, Maine.

Harden, who is white, spent the majority of his life living in suburbs. Callahan has a black biological father and white mother, but grew up in a white family after she was adopted.

They discussed their views on race in this excerpted conversation.

Liane Hansen: Have there been experiences that you have had that make you believe that there is such a gap between black and white Americans?

Greg Harden: Absolutely. I mean, my son goes to a city school, and he's 10. And he comes home with stories about how the little black kids say how they hate all white people. They pick on him, and he gets beat up. You know, I've tried to raise him treating everybody equal, and I don't know what to say to him.

Hansen: Greg mentioned his experiences with hostility between the races, and Trish, I noticed you've also experienced racism from both blacks and whites. Can you tell us some of the situations you've had to deal with?

Trish Callahan: It's been very challenging for both myself and my immediate family, as well as my extended family. One set of my grandparents were racist for most of their lives, and toward the end of their lives they began to see things differently. And I once attended a basketball camp with a lot of inner-city black girls — and I did run into quite a bit of racism from the other girls, sort of resenting my whiteness and the white family, and things like that. So I've definitely received it from both sides, and understand the hostility from both sides, given the history.

Hansen: Do you think that voters can realistically ignore race when they've had the kinds of experiences that you've had?

Callahan: It is not an easy leap to make, no. And historically, we are so immersed in traumatic incidents around this particular issue. But I think it's time for us to really stop and reflect on how much of that history are we going to choose to recreate in our children's minds and lives and perceptions of the world.

Harden: It's too much of an issue in this country, unfortunately. And it's wrong. I mean, it feels wrong when you get that racist feeling, you know it's wrong, you know. But it's so prevalent in this country, you know, it's going to be an issue.

Hansen: How will race affect your vote?

Harden: I'm actually thinking about exercising my right to not vote this election, because neither one of them really does it for me.

Callahan: I don't think race will come into play, honestly. I'm definitely looking more at leadership styles. And I'm looking for someone to step up to the plate with some hard messages about other things, and I'm more concerned about their leadership styles definitely than race.

Hansen: Why do you think race is such a big deal in this campaign?

Harden: Well, because it's a black man and a white man running against each other. If Obama is elected and he does a good job, I think people will accept that. But I think if he does a bad job, I think a lot of people — and I'm not saying this is right — but I think a lot of people will equate it with his race.

Callahan: Oh, that's a tough one to answer. I think that everyone is hurt by this subject and very uncomfortable by this subject. And so I think we all feel this wanting to move beyond it. And in Senator Obama, we see this opportunity to sort of move beyond it and say look, a black man has achieved this office.

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