For Some Voters, Issue Of Race Is About Nuance The 2008 presidential election has spurred much discussion on the subject of race. As Weekend Edition Sunday continues to examine the influence of race on politics, guest host Robert Smith talks with two people who say the issue isn't simply about skin color.
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For Some Voters, Issue Of Race Is About Nuance

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For Some Voters, Issue Of Race Is About Nuance

For Some Voters, Issue Of Race Is About Nuance

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is the part of the program where we go to you for your thoughts on race and politics. For the past two weeks, we've invited some of our listeners to join us in the discussion about how race is influencing their votes. First, we have Patricia Harris, who lives in Denver. Welcome to the program.

Ms. PATRICIA HARRIS (Caller): Thank you.

SMITH: Now, Patricia, you've sent us a letter. Would you mind reading from it?

Ms. HARRIS: Not at all.

Ms. HARRIS: (Reading) 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 versus short, nappy hair. As long as we black people are ashamed of our skin color, it is ludicrous to resent white people and other non-black people for their disdain of black people. I was very disappointed to see Mr. Obama play the race card. He started it with his ad about his funny name and the pictures on our paper bills.

SMITH: Well, thanks for reading that, Patricia. And tell us a little bit more about yourself. In the reading you call yourself black, but I understand you don't consider yourself African-American. Why don't you explain.

Ms. 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. I guess - that's just the way I refer to myself. I think the reason why I persist on the Latina part is because there's just something about still owning the native country that I come from.

SMITH: Well, that's the interesting thing about your letter, too, which is, it's about nuances. It's about not just black and white or Latina, but all the areas in between.

Ms. HARRIS: That's correct.

SMITH: When you talk about being disappointed in Barack Obama, I wonder if you think that he's handled the issue of his race in the way you'd like to see it in this election, or do you think Barack Obama needs to talk more about it, less about it? How do you view this?

Ms. HARRIS: I feel that 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 want him to just acknowledge being black when he's not just a black person? 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: Well, thanks, Patricia. We're going to bring in another listener now. Dennis Nordin wrote in to our blog to be part of this discussion, but he's also got some expertise in race and politics. He's writing a book on the effect race has on voting. He's a white man who teaches history at Mississippi State University, and he joins us from there. Welcome to the program, Dennis.

Dr. DENNIS NORDIN (Professor, Mississippi State University): Well, thank you, and I appreciate the comments that you've made, Ms. Harris. I think they're interesting and provocative.

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

Dr. NORDIN: Well basically, of course, there is consciousness of race. It cannot be avoided. I mean, 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 really explaining your full heritage.

Dr. NORDIN: Well, I think he has done that in many instances. He wrote an autobiography in which he fully discusses his background, and he's never shied away from the fact that he has a Kenyan father who basically was not much 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 about what Ms. Harris had to say about black- among-black prejudice against others, I think, first of all, being a Panamanian-American, I think that she needs to study more about the roots of American history and how African-Americans have come to the point that they have of suspicions about whites. I've been in situations where people who have come from the Caribbean have not experienced the same kinds of things they would experience for the first time in America. Once they have those experiences, then all of a sudden their thoughts about the American experience changed.

SMITH: Well, Patricia, what do you think about what Dennis has to say?

Ms. 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 Caribbeans, 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, he'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 not to express my true feelings about a candidate whether he's black, white, pink or blue.

SMITH: Now, I'll ask this to Dennis, but I should really bring this to both of you. 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 that perhaps we shouldn't. How do we reconcile that, Dennis?

Dr. NORDIN: Well, I think it's a very difficult problem, to be frank about it. I mean, for example, when John McCain responded to Senator Obama's comments about having a different name and looking different than presidents on various denominations of bills, he responded by saying he did not want to make race a 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. I mean, there have been scholars who have written books and articles about the deracialization of politics. The fact of the matter is that that's nonsense. Politics are racialized, and we do see things through our own eyes, and our eyes sometimes see the wrong things.

SMITH: What do you think, Patricia?

Ms. 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, well, when I look at you, I don't see color, how could you not see color? So anyone who thought that race would not play an important role in this campaign is being self-delusional.

SMITH: Listener Patricia Harris of Denver, Colorado, and listener Dennis Nordin of Starkville, Mississippi. She sent us a letter, and Dennis commented on our blog "Sunday Soapbox" to let us know how race is affecting them in this election. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. HARRIS: Thank you for inviting me.

Dr. NORDIN: Thank you.

SMITH: You can contribute to our conversation on race and politics by visiting npr.org/soapbox. Also on our Web site, you can hear the full documentary "Between Civil War and Civil Rights" by independent producer Alan Lipke. Next week, host Liane Hansen will be back with the next installment in our series.

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