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Thursday, October 9, 2008

McCain Slams Obama with a "Racist" Comment

It was a moment that stood out in a presidential debate void of many pithy sound bites: "That one," Republican John McCain said contemptuously of Barack Obama, pointing in the general direction of his Democratic rival while discussing energy policies.

Those two small words didn't just leave many pundits cringing, but more significantly, they caused some in the African-American community to accuse McCain of racism in his dismissive treatment of the man aiming to be the first black president in U.S. history.

"It speaks to the fundamental belief of racism: despite all evidence to the contrary, you are inherently beneath me simply by virtue of the melanin content of your skin," Ciji McBride, a 33-year-old sales professional in Los Angeles, said Wednesday.

Don Hammonds of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also took offence.

"Regardless of intent, it showed Senator McCain to be culturally ignorant, and completely unaware of the implications of what his off-the-cuff statement meant to people of colour," he wrote.

"Whether Senator McCain meant it that way or not, if you are a person of colour, and someone trots out the 'that one' remark, you instantly take it as racist. I know that I did."

Some say race is an issue that's been simmering beneath the surface since Obama won the Democratic nomination in August and began his run for the White House.

The Obama campaign has been careful to steer discussion away from race, knowing its potential to be a powder keg in a nation still deeply divided along colour lines in some key battleground states.

The Illinois senator is reportedly mindful about reaching out too visibly to black voters, assuming it would alienate the white voters he needs to win the Nov. 4 election.

But in recent days, with McCain as many as 10 points behind Obama in some polls and embarking upon a campaign to discredit his character, stories from across the country have begun to emerge:

-Yet another Republican official referring to Obama publicly as "Barack Hussein Obama," apparently in an attempt to falsely suggest he's Muslim. A sheriff in Florida did the same thing at a Sarah Palin event in Florida last week, and although McCain's running mate distanced herself from it, the sheriff was unrepentant.

-The 10-day suspension of a Grade 7 teacher in Florida for using the N-word in class to describe Obama. Parents were demanding that he be fired.

-Reports from Obama supporters in Virginia - a longtime Republican stronghold that is now polling in favour of the Democrats - of an anonymous message stuffed into their mail boxes accusing them of voting for Obama due simply to their white liberal guilt.

-A report from an Obama canvasser in a predominately white, low-income area of Philadelphia of voters using blatantly racist terms to refer to Obama, but then declaring themselves undecided.

-A man allegedly shouting out "kill him" at a Palin rally in which she criticized Obama's association with a onetime domestic terrorist. The Secret Service was investigating.

Ange-Marie Hancock, a race relations professor at the University of Southern California, says it's not surprising McCain is now running a negative campaign of the type that could incite some of the baser elements of society.

"Any time that a candidate is losing, they are going to go negative," she said.

"Americans say they hate it but it often works because it gets them riled up. I am not surprised that it's gone this way but it wouldn't have gone this way if McCain was winning. It's a sad commentary."

Alvin Poussaint, a well-known figure in the black community, says McCain's "that one" remark was an attempt to suggest Obama is a risky choice.

"This is America and race is an issue," said Poussaint, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who co-wrote a book with comic Bill Cosby entitled "Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."

"And part of the McCain campaign strategy is to paint Obama as a risk because he's different than many other Americans," he said.

"So when he says something like 'that one,' it's highlighting that. He's outside the norm. And what does 'that one' mean? Is it because he's an outsider, he's black, he's young, he's a liberal or is it all of that?"

Racism is an issue that is weighing heavily on the minds of African-Americans as the election looms, Poussaint added.

"I have many African American associates who don't believe the polls at all, who don't believe Obama is as far ahead as the polls suggest because they truly believe people simply won't vote for a black man when they are actually in the election booth," he said.

"They're fearful he is going to lose, and I've already heard that if he does lose, it will solidify in their minds that the souls of many Americans are deeply racist."

The McCain campaign appeared oblivious to how the black community received the Arizona senator's remark - and his response to a black audience member during the debate that he "may not have heard of" two failed and high-profile mortgage companies, Fannie May and Freddie Mac.

His campaign even sent out an email shortly after the debate, saying McCain's "that one" remark was the line of the night and then proceeding to refer to Obama throughout the dispatch simply as "That One."

McBride says that serves to illustrate McCain's people are out of touch. But she's optimistic that they don't represent the population in general.

"As a black person, I'm am consistently amazed by the volumes of non-black folks who are working their butts off for free to help get Obama elected," she said.

"This isn't just about Obama's race, it's about him transcending his race. Yes, there will be some people who just can't get over it. But the numbers show there are far more people who are ready to move on."

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