LIANE HANSEN, host:
The historical footnote we just heard gives us a good sense of where we've been. In a moment you'll hear from two of our listeners about their experiences with race and how that will affect the way they vote. But in the studio now is NPR news analyst Juan Williams. He's been following the role of race in the presidential campaign since the primaries. Thanks for being with us.
JUAN WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.
HANSEN: I'd first like to hear your reflections on that historical footnote we just heard.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think that when you consider that period, you understand that, literally, that's the end of the reconstruction period. And the reason for it is, of course, white dominance in the South and the kind of anger and antipathy that you hear from whites towards the idea of blacks gaining a political foothold in the South in particular during that time, and of course the fear. And I think this is part of what does linger so much, even here in the 21st century, the fear, the tension between whites and blacks. It's never that far from our minds. It's, I think, part of the weight and difficulty, the psychic drama that is in every racial encounter to this moment.
HANSEN: Let's talk about this moment, I mean you've been watching the presidential candidates as they've been trying to woo voters across the United States. Give us a sense of the racial climate they've been campaigning in?
WILLIAMS: Well this is, I mean, a fascinating period. Obviously nobody would have predicted that Barack Obama as a black American would have any chance to win the Democratic Party nomination right now. If you look at the recent history of black politics, you get black mayors in big cities. You might get some black congressmen. We've been through two, I think, black senators, Carol Moseley Braun and now Barack Obama. In the '60s there was Ed Brooke. And of course a tremendous increase in the number of blacks in the congressional black caucus now, with a historic high, and I think it's in the low 40s.
That kind of political contribution and presence is largely based on black and Hispanics voting for black candidates. The difference with Barack Obama is whites voting for a black candidate. Young white people of a different generation almost sticking a thumb in their elders eye and saying, I don't have your problems, and I like this guy, he is an idealist. Black support actually was lagging for Barack Obama until it was proven to black voters, oh, yeah, he can win, whites will vote for him. It's an atmosphere in which there's greater opportunity for a black candidate, as testified to by Barack Obama, and secondly that race continues to be an issue.
HANSEN: Talk a little bit about that, because both the Obama and the McCain campaign camps have accused each other of playing the race card. I mean, how do you see race playing out in this presidential election?
WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think we've seen it played out yet now. Just recently, of course, Barack Obama said that Republicans, and John McCain being the Republican nominee, are going to try to scare voters by saying this guy is too black. Or I don't look like any of the presidents on the dollar and five and ten-dollar bills, says Barack Obama. The response from the McCain campaign, I think, was very interesting, which was to just accuse Barack Obama of playing the race card.
It's putting Barack Obama on the defensive to say, if you play like this we're going to call the race card, and we think the race card can go both ways. You can get some sympathy for it, but guess what? We think we are also going to do well with undecided white suburban voters in some of these swing states if they feel that we are unfairly being tagged with this racism line.
HANSEN: In the past two months, our listeners and users of npr.org have posted videos and text about their views on race and politics, and I'd like you to listen with me to a conversation I had with two of them.
WILLIAMS: I'd be delighted.
HANSEN: Well, I started with listener Greg Harden. He's a white man from Rochester, New York. He spent the majority of his life in the suburbs, and I asked him first of all to read some of the comments he wrote, because he thinks racial tensions will get worse if Obama is elected.
Mr. GREG HARDEN (Caller): In a perfect world we would all love one another and treat each other as brothers. But it's not a perfect world, and races are polarizing themselves even more. I don't think Obama being elected will do anything but push the racial divide further apart.
HANSEN: Greg, have there been experiences that you've had that make you believe that there is such a gap between black and white Americans?
Mr. HARDEN: Absolutely. You know, my son goes to a city school, and he's 10. And, you know, 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 just, I don't know what to say to him.
HANSEN: Because you see that he is not being treated equally?
Mr. HARDEN: Absolutely not.
HANSEN: I want to bring into our discussion listener Trish Callahan of Portland, Maine. She commented on our Web site that her ideal candidate wouldn't see a divide between different races. Like Barack Obama, she has a black father and a white mother, but she was adopted by a white family. And Trish, welcome to the program.
Ms. TRISH CALLAHAN (Caller): Hi, Liane. It's nice to here.
HANSEN: On our Web site you wrote a poem about trying to answer your son's questions about your skin color. Would you read some of it for us?
Ms. CALLAHAN: Sure, I'd love to. People are like maybe whitish or even vanilla-ish and brownish, but never blackish, I finish. I guess that's one time when black is just a word, not a color. Is it hard having a momma that's a different color? Not really. Does it ever bother you? No, because of how much you love me.
HANSEN: Greg mentioned his experiences with hostility between the races. And Trish, I understand you've also experienced racism from both blacks and whites. Can you tell us some of the situations you've had to deal with?
Ms. 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: I'm going to ask both of you this question. But Trish, I'll stay with you. Do you think that voters can realistically ignore race when they've had the kinds of experiences that you've had?
Ms. 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.
HANSEN: Greg, let me ask you the same question. Do you think voters can realistically ignore race when they've had the kinds of experiences that you've described?
Mr. HARDEN: Realistically, no. I wish they could. 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, it's going to be an issue.
HANSEN: How will race affect your vote?
Mr. HARDEN: I'm actually thinking about exercising my right to not vote this election because neither one of them really does it for me.
HANSEN: How about you, Trish? How will race affect your vote?
Ms. 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 play with some hard messages about other things, and more concerned about their leadership styles, definitely, than race.
HANSEN: Why do you think race is such a big deal in this campaign, Trish?
Ms. CALLAHAN: Oh, that's a tough one to answer. 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 Senator Obama, we see an opportunity to sort of move beyond it and say, look, a black man has achieved this office.
HANSEN: Greg Harden, why do you think race is such a big deal in this campaign?
Mr. HARDEN: 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.
HANSEN: If John McCain is elected president, do you think people might say it was because of race?
Mr. HARDEN: I think absolutely. A lot of people like Jesse Jackson and Sharpton are totally going to jump on that ticket.
HANSEN: Trish, do you have any questions for Greg? Greg, do you have any questions for Trish?
Ms. CALLAHAN: Well, I was just going to say that I think I read your piece, and I was really moved about it, and moved that, like me, you saw so much of it through the eyes of your child's experience. And I hope that, you know, that their generation does a little bit better than ours in that regard.
Mr. HARDEN: I'm afraid they're not though. It seems like there's so much anger and, I don't know, hatred in this generation that's coming up. It's just - it seems like things are getting worse before they're going to get better.
HANSEN: Greg Harden in Rochester, New York, and Trish Callahan in Portland, Maine, are two of our listeners. They sent comments into NPR's "Get my Vote" to let us know how race is affecting them in this election. I want to thank you both for joining us.
Mr. HARDEN: Thank you.
Ms. CALLAHAN: Thank you very much.
HANSEN: We're back with NPR news analyst Juan Williams who's been listening to that conversation with Trish Callahan and Greg Harden. What do you think?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I think the joy of listening to what we just heard from those two NPR listeners is they sound like honest people. I was particularly taken by Greg's experiences, you know, with his child, because it's so personal and so real to him. There's no denying what's going on in that neighborhood or that schoolyard. That's so real. And of course you have bullies of all colors, and all that, but this takes place in a racial prison. As - just as we heard Trish talk about growing up and having grandparents who had racist feelings and then come back. This is where I think so many racial attitudes are formed.
It's not by the time we get to Barack Obama and John McCain. No, no. It's at the dinner table. It's in the schoolyard. It's growing up. It's people who think somebody got a job that they should have had because they were a minority, a woman, etcetera. Remember that famous Jesse Helms commercial where the white hand is crumpling the letter, and "You should have had that job." Those are basic appeals, emotional appeals, and I think it's on that level that politics is still played in this country.
HANSEN: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Thanks for coming in.
WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Liane.
HANSEN: We also sent our blogger, Jacob Soboroff, out on the streets of Los Angeles to find out about how race is affecting voters. You can see his video and find a lot more on race and politics on our blog, npr.org/soapbox.