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The Toronto Star

Obama and the Politics of Race

Bob Hepburn

During the many years that I lived in the United States, first as a university student, then as reporter for two Midwest newspapers and later as the Washington correspondent for the Star, I was always struck by the huge divide between blacks and whites.

As a Canadian from small-town Ontario, I was initially somewhat naive about the bigotry and anger shown by many whites, especially males, toward blacks. It didn't take long, though, to learn just how deep-rooted those feelings were.

Over the years, I watched as ruthless white politicians, or at least their sleazy campaign strategists, played off those feelings.

There was Ronald Reagan trashing "welfare moms," code words for single black mothers who didn't work.

There were the campaign supporters for the first George Bush who ran the infamous campaign ads that criticized Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis for backing a weekend furlough program that let Willie Horton, a nasty-looking black serving a life sentence for murder, get out of prison temporarily, during which time he committed rape and robbery.

And today, while few U.S. politicians will dare say the current presidential campaign is about race, it clearly is.

Yes, an ugly wind is blowing across America again. This time it is heading straight toward Barack Obama, who will likely be the Democratic candidate for president. Obama's victory Tuesday over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in North Carolina virtually assured his nomination.

In the North Carolina primary, racial divisions were dramatic. Clinton won 60 per cent of white votes while Obama received 90 per cent of black votes.

And many of the whites who went to Clinton were working-class white males. Republican pollster Whit Ayres calls them "this year's soccer moms," referring to the favoured target group for politicians during the 1996 presidential campaign. "There's no way on God's green earth they're going to vote for Barack Obama," Ayres says of blue-collar white males. "They will vote for John McCain," the Republican nominee.

Sadly, even Clinton has started indirectly playing the race card, reinventing herself as the defender of working-class whites, stooping so low that she even talked of how she loved to shoot guns.

And if Clinton is subtly raising the race factor, you can bet the Republicans will, too.


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Obama realizes it. "We know the attacks are coming," he told supporters Tuesday night.

Obama is seen by many voters as the candidate of hope and change. This is especially true for blacks, who see him -- not Clinton -- as the leader who could help them achieve real economic and social equality with whites.

For many blacks, the equality gains of the 1960s and 1970s are a faded memory. Currently, three times as many blacks now live in poverty than whites. Black unemployment is three times as high as white jobless rates; black educations levels are much lower; AIDS rates are 10 times higher than they are for whites; the rate of incarceration is three times that of whites.

What does all this mean for Canadians? Well, while it may be tempting to look smugly at America and say such things aren't happening here, the truth is we suffer many of the same problems that plague America when it comes to inclusiveness in politics and business.

In cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, diversity and minorities are welcomed. But for the most part, the movers and shakers of Canada are still white, still male.

In Ontario, for example, the Queen's Park Legislature is dominated by white males, as are city councils across the province.

And Quebec's recent controversial hearings into "reasonable accommodation" show there is another, ugly side to the diversity debate in other parts of the country.

And yet our own political leaders rarely address these issues in any meaningful way, preferring instead to remain silent and do little about the inequality in our own midst.

To some extent, America has come a long way, but has much further to go. So, too, does Canada.

Hopefully, if Obama becomes president, America will truly change its attitude toward race and equality. And if that happens, then hopefully the same attitudinal changes will occur in Canada.

Bob Hepburn's column appears every Thursday.

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