(As printed in the Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester NY, September 26, 2008)
Ever since 1960, both major political parties have consented to presidential debates of their respective nominees. Tonight’s debate on foreign policy, however, marks a historic moment on the nation’s racial landscape - for the debate features a major party’s nominee who identifies as Black.
Pressing, though, is the unstable economy, made evident by John McCain’s recommendation on Wednesday that the debate should be postponed.
Yet, one topic should not be camouflaged – race. Tonight’s debate hosted by the University of Mississippi or ‘Ole Miss’ is the site where in 1962 White students and residents rioted, and Governor Barnett blocked the entry, despite the Supreme Court ordered admission, of the university’s first Black student, James Meredith.
A watershed legacy presents an opportunity for McCain and Obama. Both can share their view on the role of government in respect to civil rights at home and abroad, while we can recognize the subtle significance of the Commission on Presidential Debates’ selection of Ole Miss.
McCain needs to clarify his record on civil rights and explain why his campaign website includes no mention of civil rights. As it stands, a reasonable conclusion can be that it’s not of concern to him. The gall of claiming to bring civility “changes” abroad when one’s own backyard is filthy is incomprehensible.
Obama needs to remind voters of his March speech on race to calm their chastisements of his purported inattention to that very topic.
According to a New York Times article published Wednesday, “Debate Host, Too, Has a Message of Change,” even Chancellor Robert Khayat acknowledges that hosting the debate ‘speaks volumes’ of how Ole Miss has transformed from 46 years ago.
Yet, with Black enrollment at the public university at 14% in a state that is nearly 40% Black, more progress is needed. The chancellor’s overruling of a jury which chose to include mention of ‘fear’ in an erected memorial to Meredith’s triumph, is another indication of more progress being necessary. Embracing the role fear played in the riots surrounding Meredith’s enrollment should not be considered ‘negative’ as the New York Times article reports, but factual.
Fear is a valid emotion that affects the status and quality of race relations in the United States.
For instance, a AP-Yahoo News poll released Saturday found that 1/3 of White Democrats and independents view Blacks negatively, citing perceived laziness or violence as reasons for their views. The same poll suggests Obama’s race could cost him 6% in the election.
Hence, the stakes tonight are extremely high and the expectations are likely even higher, relative to global and domestic issues.
While the implications of tonight’s historic debate remain unclear, one thing is transparent: the choices before voters indicate that identity politics matters. For McCain – it’s his age and his running mate’s gender. For Obama – it’s his race.
By reversing their status quo positions of dancing around or ignoring race, McCain and Obama have the opportunity to emphatically endorse the desirable “changes” they both advocate for here and abroad.
But, odds are they won’t.