2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Voters try to look beyond race when picking candidates


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Sarah Terry-Cobo
2/4/08 Argus (Fremont-Newark, CA)

OAKLAND -- With Election Day looming, some residents complain the coverage of the Democratic campaign is too narrowly focused on the potentially divisive issue of race.

Major news networks have focused on race in the California Democratic primary as if it were just as important as the candidates' goals and experience, some voters said in interviews in Oakland.

But in the ethnically mixed neighborhood of Lake Merritt, many registered voters said the substance of the candidates, rather than their ethnic background, will sway their votes.

"What we need is a change from current policy," said Carolyn Lasar, an Oakland homemaker who is registered nonpartisan. "I'm voting for the most electable."

While still undecided, Lasar said she's drawn to different qualities in Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and even John Edwards, who has since dropped out of the race. With Obama, she likes that he "comes out of the traditional mix.

"He's not a white male," she said, "and he speaks to a lot of issues that are important."

Lasar acknowledged that race may be a factor for some voters, but she hopes race and gender are not the sole determining components when voters head to the polls Tuesday. She said she would be happy with either Clinton or Obama as president.

Lasar was hesitant to provide her own race. "I'm tan," she said, recalling a dinner conversation with her family the previous night. Children participating in the discussion decided that Lasar and 4-year-old family member Elena, who is adopted from Kazakhstan, have similar skin tone and are both tan.

"That is what the next generation thinks about race," Lasar said, smiling.

James Achee, 38, a chauffeur, is also looking deeper than the skin to analyze the candidates. Achee, who is caucasian and registered Green, said he would vote for Obama, or would have voted for Edwards, if he could vote on the Democratic ballot.

"I wouldn't vote for a candidate based on their race," he said as he pushed his infant daughter in her stroller around the lake. Instead, he prefers an intelligent, articulate person -- "someone who has a vision of what they want to accomplish for the country," he said.

Achee said he will most likely vote for Ralph Nader, but was not aware that Cynthia McKinney, a former Senator from Georgia who is black, was on the Green ballot.

Henry Raulston, a 66-year-old retired postal worker and registered independent voter, said he is leaning toward Obama.

"I like the spirit and enthusiasm, the idea that it's time for change," he said. Raulston likened Obama to Robert Kennedy, saying the Illinois Senator is looking to bring the people of the country together.

While Raulston agrees that one must acknowledge that race is a factor in this year's election, he said it "has taken a back seat" when compared to Jesse Jackson's campaigns in the 1980s.

Raulston said race won't play a role in his election decision, but feels he has something in common with Obama, noting the senator's mixed ethnicity.

"I've done genealogical research for my family and I'm mixed too," Raulston said. When asked his racial identity, Raulston replied, "I'm human. Since I have blood from (blacks), whites and Indians, I am the American dream. I'm a mix."

Like Lasar and Achee, Raulston criticized media coverage of the campaign as superficial, offering little real analysis of the candidates.

Jack Citrin, professor of political science and director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley, said race is a legitimate issue to discuss in analyzing the presidential campaign.

"If the media didn't mention that Obama was black or the racial theme has been injected into the campaign, they wouldn't be doing their job," Citrin said.

Clottey disagrees.

"I think the media has maintained the status quo and the divisiveness around race and gender," she said. "It's like a racial smog that hinders a person from thinking clearly about what these individuals are bringing."

Clottey, like Raulston, also identifies herself as "human."

"Because we are all caught up in the issue of race," she said, "we could miss the chance to choose a president who could help our country."

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