For Some Voters, Issue Of Race Is About Nuance

Patricia Harris

hide captionPatricia Harris says she doesn't think you could go anywhere in the world and not find racism.

Courtesy of Patricia Harris
Dennis Nordin

hide captionDennis Nordin says he believes that racial politics are an undeniable part of America.

Courtesy of Dennis Nordin

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

Patricia Harris of Denver wrote that she was disappointed at the way she says Sen. Barack Obama injected the issue of race into the campaign.

Dennis Nordin of Starkville, Miss., wrote about how the current campaign has influenced his examination of race and politics.

The 2008 presidential election has spurred much discussion on the subject of race. As Weekend Edition Sunday continues its series examining the influence of race on politics, guest host Robert Smith talks with two people who say the issue isn't just about skin color, it's about the nuances. This week, he speaks with Patricia Harris of Denver and Dennis Nordin of Starkville, Miss.

Harris says she considers herself black but not African-American, and Nordin is a white man who teaches history at Mississippi State University and is writing a book on the effect race has on voting.

They discussed their views in this excerpted conversation.

Robert Smith: Patricia you sent us a letter. Would you mind reading from it?

Patricia Harris: We (blacks) are the worst perpetrators when it comes to judging people by the color of their skin. For example, we still indulge in the "paper bag" test (the lighter the better), "good hair"/"bad hair" and "long hair" vs. "short, nappy hair." As long as we (black people) are ashamed of our skin color, it is ludicrous to resent white people and other nonblack people for their disdain of black people.

I was very disappointed to see Mr. (Barack) Obama play the race card. He started it with his ad about his funny name and the pictures on our paper bills.

Smith: In the reading, you call yourself black. But I understand you don't consider yourself African-American. ... Why don't you explain?

Harris: I'm a native Panamanian and whenever I refer to myself I say I'm a black Latina. I'm not adverse to being called African-American. That's just the way I refer to myself. I think the reason I persist on the Latina part is there's just something about owning the native country where I come from.

Smith: When you talk about being disappointed in Obama when he played the race card, I wonder if you think he's handled the issue of his race in the way you'd like to see it in this election. Do you think Obama needs to talk more about it? Less about it?

Harris: I feel it's important for him to acknowledge both sides of his heritage. After all, he has a black father and a white mother. Why play to those of us who just want him to just acknowledge being black when he's not just a black man. I want him to say, "This is who I am. I'm not going to deny my black father, and I'm not going to deny my white mother."

Smith: Dennis, how do Patricia's comments reflect what you've heard from other voters as you're writing this book on race and voting?

Dennis Nordin: Basically there is consciousness of race — it can't be avoided. It is an interesting election because of the fact that there is race injected into it, willingly or unwillingly.

Smith: What about the nuances that Patricia's talking about, how it's not just black and white, it's about explaining your full heritage?

Nordin: I think (Obama) has done that on several instances. He wrote an autobiography where he fully discusses his background, and he's never shied away from the fact that he has a Kenyan father who was never involved in his life. So I don't think it's fair to be critical of him on this issue.

One thing I'd like to comment on, what Ms. Harris has to say about black among black prejudice against others. I think first of all, being a Panamanian-American, I think she needs to study more about the roots of American history and how African-Americans have come to the point they have about suspicions about whites. I've been in situations where people who've come from the Caribbean have not experienced the same kinds of things they would've experienced in America. Once they've had those experiences, then all of a sudden their thoughts about the American experience changed.

Harris: I disagree, because I don't think you could go any place in the world where you don't find racism. Especially against dark-skinned people. It happens in Panama, it happens in the Caribbean, it happens in Jamaica. It even happens in Africa, where a lot of African women are using bleaching cream. And I've lived long enough in this country to know what it's like to experience racism. My big issue is how we are racist against each other. I have had friends who have approached me saying, "You are going to vote for Obama, aren't you? After all, it's going to be the first black president and you're a black woman and that's what you should do." And that puts pressure on me to not express my true feelings about a candidate, whether he's black, white, pink or blue.

Smith: You both seem to say that the presidential race does not need to be about the color of one's skin. And yet you can talk on and on and on about the role of race in politics. It's both tempting to talk about it and you seem to advocate maybe we shouldn't. How do we reconcile that?

Nordin: I think it's a very difficult problem, to be frank about it. For example, when John McCain responded to Senator Obama's comments about having a different name and looking different than presidents on various denominations on bills, he responded that he didn't want to make race part of the campaign. By just making that comment, basically, he did. But the bottom line is that racial politics are part of America, and to deny it would be to deny the truth. There have been scholars who have written books and articles about the deracialization of politics. The fact of the matter is that's nonsense. Politics are racialized, and we do see things through our own eyes and our eyes sometimes do see the wrong things.

Harris: I agree with you, Dennis. I agree with him 100 percent. It's the same as someone looking at me and saying, "I don't see your color at all." And I often wonder when people look at me as a black person and say, "When I look at you I don't see color." How can you not see color? So anyone who thought race would not play an important role in this campaign is being self-delusional.

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