Considering the dire state of the economy, health care, Iraq and global warming after eight years of the Bush administration, the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, should have had a substantial lead over his Republican adversary, John McCain, from the beginning of the campaign, but didn't. The race has been neck and neck, with Obama leading in recent polls largely because of the economic crisis.
Increasingly, pundits and politicians, like David Gergen after the second debate and former San Francisco Mayor, Willie Brown, are attributing the closeness of this election to racial prejudice, what some call "the Bradley effect." This alludes to 1982 exit polls favoring black candidate for California governor Tom Bradley which turned out to be shockingly wrong when his white opponent, George Dukmejian, beat him in the election. The same phenomenon occurred in the political races of black candidates David Dinkins in New York City and Douglas Wilder in Virginia. Recent polls in key states like Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, reveal that racism accounts for at least twenty percent of the vote against Obama. The true figure is probably 30%. Fox News (9/22/08- Fox news) reported that only 70% of Democrats support Barack Obama while 85% of Republicans support John McCain. Moreover, 33% of Democrats have negative attitudes toward blacks, which translates into 6% of the national vote. Thus, racism could decide the outcome of the election.
In view of white America's traditional racism since slavery, Obama's candidacy shows enormous racial progress. Obama himself considers racism "a wash" when comparing those voting for him because he is black and those who hold it against him. But pervasive fears of his assassination, incorrectly stereotyping him as a Muslim, considering him an uppity elitist, or the question, "Is the country ready for a black president," suggests that racism can cause him to lose the election.
Psychologically, racism stems from the primordial hatred of "the other" that is deeply embedded in our mind from birth. We begin life in the womb, physically and psychologically merged with our mother, sharing common nutrition and oxygen through her blood supply. If we could place ourselves in the fetus's psyche, this merged state is probably experienced as paradise since we are completely taken care of without having to do anything for ourselves. There is no difference between our internal mental world and the external physical world. When the umbilical cord is cut, we are physically separated from mother but are still psychologically merged with her. We experience everything, including the external world, as our self. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called this primary narcissism.
However, at birth our enwombed paradise is shattered as we are bombarded by light, noise, hunger and pain- for the first time. We experience aversive stimulation, the first representation of "the other," as frustrating threats to our existence, and become enraged. To watch a frustrated baby is like observing an angry demi-god with little lightning bolts coming out of its head.
Our hatred of the "other" continues unconsciously throughout development. At the youngest ages we idealize our parents as the best parents in the world and react to strangers with trepidation and anger. We experience our religion as superior to all others and tend to hate strange religions, we believe that our race is superior and hate other races, or that our nation is the greatest and hate other nations. Hating "the other" is a way of protecting our original, archaic merged state within mother's womb that still unconsciously exists in our mental life. If you add to this the strangeness of someone of a different race, the case of black Americans who start out as slaves, for example, our fear and hatred increases exponentially. American families grow up with traditions of hatred against "others," -- "You've got to be carefully taught to hate and fear," the South Pacific song goes, whether it is whites hating blacks or visa versa.
The "other" is like an unknown stimulus, like a Rorschach onto which it is easy to disown and project dehumanizing evil and depraved behavior. For example, hating our own sexual, licentious impulses, unconsciously projecting them onto blacks, and accusing them of being sexually depraved. Thus McCain's accusation against Obama of crossing boundaries in promoting sexual education for kindergarten children while showing Obama smiling lasciviously in ads, appeals to unconscious racism, based on projective identification. Or the Republican portrayal of Obama as a terrorist when McCain and Palin, in desperation from their plunge in the polls, might want to terrorize him.
Or we could project what we hate about our internal parents, such as a hated dominating father -- a typical Democratic depiction of McCain as a cranky authoritarian curmudgeon, or the Republican portrayal of a Democratic run government as a suffocating, indulgent mother.
The antidote for our hatred of "the other" is empathy. As the country learns more about Barack Obama, for example, his upbringing, his family and sees how black families are the same as white families, with good values, struggling with the same human issues and reflecting so much of what is good about humanity, the prospect of a having a black family in what has exclusively been the "White" House, becomes increasingly conceivable and acceptable. Through empathic familiarity, the fear and hatred of the "other" and the toxic projections of "badness" often dissolve into seeing and loving the other like ourselves and as part of the human family. By identifying with the "other," we resonate with that archaic state of enwombment and pleasurable merger that is embedded so deeply within our psyches, so that "the other" becomes us. We are "the other."