Has Election Day Changed Race In Politics?

Trish Callahan

hide captionTrish Callahan, who is biracial, says she has experienced racism from both blacks and whites.

Courtesy of Trish Callahan
Greg Harden

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

Courtesy of Greg Harden

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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.

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.

From the moment Sen. Barack Obama started his campaign for president, Americans began debating the role of race in politics. Months ago, we invited some listeners to talk openly and honestly with one another about the issue. Some were reluctant to vote for a nonwhite candidate. Others said Obama's candidacy would reduce racial tensions.

We've brought two of those listeners back for a post-election conversation.

Before The Election

Trish Callahan, from Augusta, Maine, has a black biological father and white mother, but she grew up in a white family after she was adopted. She was uncomfortable discussing race and politics in previous conversations:

"I think that everyone is hurt by this subject and very uncomfortable by this subject. So I think we all feel this wanting to move beyond it. And in Sen. Obama, we see an opportunity to sort of move beyond it and say, look, a black man has achieved this office."

Greg Harden, from Rochester, N.Y., is white. He spent the majority of his life living in suburbs. When asked in previous conversations why he thought race was such a big deal in this campaign, he answered:

"Oh, 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."

A New Conversation Begins

Now that Obama is president-elect, the dialogue has changed. Callahan and Harden share their reactions with Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen.

Liane Hansen: Greg, you made that comment three months ago on our program. Now that Barack Obama has been elected, do you still feel strongly that people will be critical of him because of his race?

Greg Harden: I almost feel sorry for the guy. He has so much riding on his shoulders and people have such high expectations for him. I don't know if it's going to come down to race or not. If he does a bad job, I'm sure there will be people out there saying that's why. He's got his hands full.

Hansen: Trish, you said Barack Obama represented an opportunity to make progress on racial issues. Do you still think that's true?

Trish Callahan: I do. Yes, I do. And it was sort of a divide between my sons and I. They were very much for Sen. Obama at the end there. I think it represented a lot to them because they are multi-raced children of a single mom. So, to them it represents on a lot of levels that many different kinds of people are going to be able to achieve high offices now.

Hansen: You didn't like some of the stands that Barack Obama took on some of the issues. You were undecided. You were undecided days before the election. Who did you end up voting for?

Callahan: I have to say right up until the day of the election I had really fundamental reasons why I didn't feel either major ticket was exactly what I thought we needed for leadership at this time. So, quite honestly, I will say in that regard, I tossed my vote to Sarah Palin because even though I'm not a Christian conservative and I have a lot of different views than she does, I am a mom, I'm in the same generation as she. And I thought that she took a beating by the media and I really thought I'd just toss my vote to her.

Hansen: It was your children you said you were talking to and the last time both of you were on the show you mentioned children as being a big factor in your reaction to race issues. Greg, what were you talking to your son about Obama's election, what have you said to him?

Harden: Well, he asked me who I was going to vote for. He asked me who he should vote for — the black guy or the white guy. And I told him, McCain. And he asked me if it was because he was white and I said no. He's got the background, he's got the knowledge. And he's going to know how to run this country better than a first-term senator.

Hansen: You know, you said you might not vote in this election last time because you didn't really care for either of the candidates. What changed your mind?

Harden: I like McCain. I think he's a cool guy. The fact that he's in the military, he was a jet pilot. He just seems like somebody I'd get along with.

Hansen: Did race figure at all in your vote?

Harden: No, it really didn't. I just don't ... Obama just doesn't have any experience at this. And he's coming into a presidency at such an awful time. He's going to need everything he can get. He's got his hands full. I really do feel sorry for the guy.

Hansen: Trish, what about you — since your vote was basically inspired by Sarah Palin's presence on John McCain's ticket?

Callahan: I hope the country comes together behind our new president. I really do. But I think I have a hard time with the way both parties frame issues, so it's hard to agree with their solutions. So, I guess I'm kind of indifferent and ambivalent but hoping the country unites and makes forward progress.

Hansen: Has Obama's election changed the way you feel about race and politics, Trish?

Callahan: I'm sort of moving on now to gender and politics. I'm really curious about how we've treated our female candidates, both Sen. Clinton and Gov. Palin. I was thinking our next area to move forward on and make progress on is how we treat women in politics because I do think this represents some degree of accomplishment with race and politics.

Hansen: Greg, has the election of Sen. Barack Obama as president changed the way you feel about race and politics?

Harden: I'm glad that 200 years of history has been broken. I'm glad that we have a black president. I hope Obama does a great job. I hope he's everything the people think he is. I'm just glad that it happened. It's been a long time coming.

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