How We Are Getting Racists to Vote for Obama

by Guest Contributor SuzeNYC, originally published at Daily Kos (SuzeNYC’s Diary)

Yesterday, I spent the day canvassing with friends for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. It doesn’t matter where it was. It could have been any number of cities all over our country. I am shocked by my experience.

I’ve been working as a volunteer for almost a year and a half for this campaign and I have encountered a fair amount of people’s racism around Barack. I’m a white 44 year old woman. My support for Barack has meant that I’ve been spat upon, physically attacked, called terrible names, cussed at and, of course, had the door slammed in my face by people using the “N” explicative.

[UPDATE: It was brought to my attention in the comments that I am misrepresenting the canvassing experience and there is truth to that. While petitioning and registering voters on the streets, or while doing visibility on primary days I had most of those negative experiences. They were all completely un-provoked. I was wearing an Obama button and a smile. The only thing negative that has happened while canvassing is having doors slammed and being scared by dogs from behind a fence. On to the next door.]

As this campaign has progressed I always felt that it was a given that a certain percentage of Americans are racist and we just don’t worry about losing that vote because we never had it. We make up for that by registering tons of voters and making sure that they get to the polls. This is the work I’ve been doing with my band of friends who I’ve met through the campaign.

Well, yesterday that presumption disintegrated.

I was knocking on doors talking to folks. We met many Democrats, Independents and even some Republicans who are Obama supporters. We also talked with people who are undecided and heard at a few doors something that I’ve heard before, “I’m a Democrat (some were even Republicans) and I really don’t like John McCain, but I just don’t know what to do.” I’d go on to talk taxes, education, health care, but realized after a few of these conversations that something was missing,

I knew these people were intimating that they were having trouble with Obama’s race but I couldn’t figure out how to approach this.

The answer came in the form of an amazing guy I’ll call Stan. Stan’s daughter answered the door. She had long blond hair and looked to be about 15. She said her Dad was across the street at the garage where he works and he had not decided who he was voting for. My canvassing partner Kevin and I crossed the street to find Stan who was sitting with his co-workers having lunch, so we had quite an audience for what was to follow.

Stan said the usual stuff. Democrat. Doesn’t like McCain. Worried about the economy and then he was hedging around the fact that he has some problem with Barack. I looked him in the eye and with a relaxed smile on my face I plunged into the water and asked, “So, are you having a problem with the color of his skin?” He said he was. I asked him why and he said some non-sensible things like, “I don’t know. It’s just not right, you know? Something feels wrong about it.”

I asked him, again in a relaxed, non-judgmental tone, “Do you think you are a racist?’ At first he said, “No.” Then he said, “I don’t know, maybe.” I said, “You know, Barack’s mom looked a lot like me. And Barack and Michelle just finished paying their student loans last year. I wish that you would take a closer look at this man and try to see deeper than just his skin color. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are regular people who will never betray the middle class. That isn’t who John McCain is.” He agreed. At this point we could feel him relaxing and Kevin and I really stared connecting with him. I think he felt relieved that the cat was out of the bag and we weren’t giving him superior attitude or stomping away. We talked with him and listened to him talk about taxes and how Obama will give tax breaks to everyone making under $250K and we talked about the war and oil prices and how hard it has been to pay the bills.

He told me that his daughter with his first wife, the blond girl who answered the door is 1/4 African American but doesn’t know it. I said, “Wow. You are an interesting, complicated guy.” He laughed. He said that he doesn’t want to be a racist, but change is hard. I empathized. Kevin said, “Yeah, change is hard, but it’s inevitable and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of change.” Stan smiled and said, “Well, this is going to be the first time that I vote and I just might vote for Obama.” We told him we were amazed and thanked him. He seemed happy. We were happy.

We went on to have very similar conversations with about 6 more people that afternoon. Later when we joined our other canvassing friends they reported very similar conversations.

So, what I was shocked by is the realization that it seems that there is a category of white Americans who are somewhat racist but who are poised to be persuaded. In my experience the key was asking these people in a non-judgmental manner if they think the color of Barack’s skin is getting in the way for them. They were struggling with deciding to vote for Barack, but they did not seem to want to think of themselves as racist, so they were open to re-thinking their position with me and Kevin. Once we got past the racism thing it was not hard to show them how Barack is more like they are than McCain is.

What is so unexpected to me is that it really only took between 10- 15 minutes per person to turn this category of people that I had given up on from “NO” to “MAYBE” or “LEANING.”

We have 30 days to keep talking to these people. Please. Please, get out there canvassing! You can make the difference. Find your local office here.

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