Race and our imaginations

There's an interesting article in the NY Times about Florida's electoral prospects this year. It doesn't look like much at first glance--it follows the pretty typical anecdote-anecdote-data-complication-opposing anecdote-further complication-conclusion structure--but because the subject involves race and voting combined with the bad economy, it becomes a little more revealing.

First of all, I'm really surprised that not only is Florida close, Barack Obama is leading here by small margins in all the most recent polling. Nate Silver's Obama vs. McCain projection map made Florida a very pale blue just this past week, and I'm pretty sure that's the first time during this campaign that's happened. I didn't see it coming--actually, what I didn't see coming was the disaster that the McCain campaign has been, combined with just how bad the economy has gotten. My imagination failed me.

Our imaginations fail us all the time--we over- or underestimate the effects of a particular action or movement; we presume the best or worst of our neighbors. I'm as guilty of it as anyone. Just look at this bit of the NY Times article I linked above.

Many older Democrats quietly admit they will not vote for Mr. Obama because they fear he would put too many blacks in power, or be hamstrung in office by racial opposition.
The first group can be described as straight-out racist--if you look at his advisers on economic and foreign policy, you see a lot of diversity. That objection is born out of some racist nightmare where white people wake up January 21, 2009 to a Cabinet made up of Flava-Flav, Al Sharpton, Sister Souljah, and O. J. Simpson (out after being pardoned, of course). It's ridiculous.

It's the second that's a failure of imagination. When it comes to racism, we often assume the worst of those around us. Look at this campaign--what was a big reason Obama wasn't winning black voters in polling before Iowa? Because black voters didn't believe white voters would support him. Why do some people believe President Obama would be hamstrung by racial opposition? Because we assume that other people are racist, or at least, more racist than we are.

There's a lot to base that assumption on, mind you--like our entire history as a nation. But if we look at this potential Obama rationally, it's far more likely that he'd be hamstrung by economic woes, or by an ideologically opposed minority in the Senate who is willing and able to gum up the works for any legislation they oppose than by racial opposition. Sure, race will be a part of it--there are some fairly unenlightened people serving in Congress, after all--but it's unlikely to be a major factor, especially in a time when people are less willing to express their racial motivations openly. Even in the Times article, the people who express these feelings do so in whispers and are not quoted directly. There are social costs to being perceived as a racist.

They key to victory down here seems to be similar to that in other states--turn out the strongholds, register and turn out new voters, and peel off just enough of the opposition in their strongholds to keep it close. So far, it looks like the Democrats are doing a better job of that, at least for now. It's time, I think, to imagine a future with a blue Florida.

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