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Racism Alive And Well In The South

10/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have spent more than two-thirds of my life living in three small towns in America's South. I have also spent part of 30 summers on Cape Cod and other islands off the coast of Massachusetts. I went to college in New England and lived in two very large cities in that part of the country for ten years. I also lived in Europe for three years, two of them in what is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

So I've seen some of both sides. And I am afraid that there is a part of the American South in which I grew up and now live that will not vote for Barack Obama simply because he is black. I hate to have to say this. But there it is.

The elephant, or donkey, if you like, in the middle of the room is that racism is still alive and well in small-town American, particularly in the South where I have spent a good part of my life.

When I moved to Virginia from Boston in the mid-'80s and was invited to dinner at the home of some highly educated long-time residents, I was shocked to hear the "n" word used in casual conversation. Years later at the home of professors hosting a large dinner party for foreign visitors, the hostess used the word "wetbacks" as though she were talking about flower arrangements. These are not isolated incidents. The "n" word (no, I'm sorry, but I can't use it myself) is not just heard in rap songs by black musicians, it is used whenever people think they can get away with it. And while people may say one thing in "polite" company, what they will tell a canvasser, or what they will do in a voting booth, are two different things. As much as I personally admire Obama and know his race is not an issue for me, I fear it is may well be an issue for some of those with the small-town values that Palin so lauded in her speech.

Prejudice dies hard. Check out this article on waffles served at a Republican fundraiser. Some people, apparently, even think it's funny.

And prejudice will affect this campaign, even if we don't choose to openly talk about it. And even if John McCain refuses to acknowledge it at all.

There is also the suspicion of the "other," to account for: the wariness of the one who can't be categorized. Barack Obama, with his odd name, his African father, and his Ivy League degrees, is just too much to take in. The fact the Obama has lived the proverbial American Dream doesn't count, really. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia had it in a nutshell when he called Obama "uppity." The fact that Obama has lived the proverbial American Dream doesn't count, really. I mean, we just can't have that sort of thing around here, can we? Apparently not.

While I was thinking about and researching this piece, almost afraid to write it because of the flak I knew I would get, I happened upon this piece in "Salon," which cites an Annenberg poll that says that 13 percent of voters still believe that Obama is a Muslim, and many others aren't sure what religion he is. That's a big deal in this church-going, God-fearing country.

In another Salon article linked to the first one, a man is quoted as saying "Obama, he's not our kind of people. . . . He don't believe in the hereafter, and the Lord, the way I look at it . . . he's Muslim."

Sure enough, the night before I even read that article, the waitress in the pizza parlor I frequent assured me with much fervor that Obama was indeed a Muslim. When I tried to disabuse her of that fact, she shrugged and said, "Well, he's gonna get shot anyway," and moved on to the next table.

I have long suspected that a good number of people would not vote for Obama merely because he is black, and that no amount of information would change their minds. I am both encouraged (because it shows I am not merely paranoid) and saddened (because I wish we were more enlightened as a country) to see my suspicions borne out. But what I have also suspected is true: while the information is out there for people to make up their minds wisely, the people are not accessing it, for whatever reason. It may be because they are simply not interested, they're too busy, or they've made up their minds based on the disinformation they have already absorbed.

For example, the woman who checks me out at CVS gets all her information from the magazines that line her counter: US, People, and the tabloids. And she is positive the media is giving Palin a raw deal. The man who owns my favorite pizza joint is sure that Palin is good for women. When I asked him if he knew where she stands on any important issues, he threw up his hands and said, "I'm working here twelve hours a day, when do I have time to look at the news?"

That's the other donkey in the room: ignorance.

These are not bad people. But they represent a large portion of the population who are simply not going to be informed before the election and will vote based on their guts.

They are the ones who, for all their open-minded facade, when alone at the voting booth, will decide that they just can't pull the lever for a black man who might just be a Muslim, and about whom they really don't know much.

These are the people whom Barack Obama still must reach. I hope he can do it.

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