26 Oct 2008

The latest polls say Barack Obama is set to win next month's U.S. election, becoming the country's first black President. But given its chequered racial history, has America finally shed enough of its prejudice to endorse Obama over his white Republican opponent John McCain?

Mail on Sunday columnist Suzanne Moore and David Matthews travelled from Louisville, Kentucky - birthplace of Muhammad Ali - through West Virginia and Virginia on their way to Washington DC. Their mission: to find out - from both black and white perspectives - how much the issue of race will dictate who becomes the most powerful man in the world...


The latest polls say Barack Obama is the clear favourite to win the U.S. Presidential election next month

Saturday afternoon and I am in a sea of people whooping and chanting 'USA, USA, USA'. It's cold but the excitement appears to be keeping most people warm.

We are waiting for John McCain to finally appear at this rally in Woodbridge, Virginia. I had seen a cardboard cut-out of him on the way in. I didn't realise it was life-size.

When he finally makes it on stage, to the theme tune from Rocky, McCain is indeed as small and stiff as the cardboard model.

Never mind, I have the merchandise and I'm wearing a badge that says 'Read My Lipstick. Drill Now' (a slogan for McCain's running-mate Sarah Palin) and holding a 'handmade' sign given to me by the rally organisers.

Country First banners are all around me. Allegiance is sworn to the flag.

Mail on Sunday writers David Matthews and Suzanne Moore. Photographed infront of the Capitol

Odyssey: David and Suzanne arrive in front of the Capitol at the end of their quest

A 12-year-old boy next to me asks why I am not wearing red. I explain that David Matthews and I are not really from around these parts. Can you be a 12-year-old Republican, I wonder? 'Sure, ma'am. My daddy trained me good.'

After all, we are in the VIP arena, with seats right by the edge of the stage. Walking in, a tall, blond man asked if we wanted 'to meet the governor'.

We found ourselves waved through the sweat-panted masses into a hand-picked, ethnically diverse crowd. There are Vietnam veterans, some very pretty girls and many 'people of colour'.

Actually, many colours. When the TV camera swoops down on us, McCain will have all his bases covered.

It doesn't matter that we don't have a vote. Yet this crowd, like everyone we meet, despises 'the liberal media', while passively accepting that this entire event is organised for TV.

'Have you always been a Republican?' I ask the man who pushed us through the lumpen crowd. 'Sure, I can read and write,' he says, winking.

Had he not been hustling us into the good seats, it seemed to me he would have been smoking his pipe and letting rip about why a 'goddam black terrorist Muslim' can never be let into the White House. He was GOP - the Grand Old Party - personified, and he made me uneasy.

Of course, not all McCain supporters are like that and we met many on our journey from Kentucky through West Virginia and into Virginia.

This election is not all about race. But it's always there - the subtext of every conversation, the prism through which much debate is conducted, the fault-line of American society. It is both ever-present and somehow invisible. This election is about real change. Race is but a factor - but one that is impossible to ignore.

A badge bearing Sarah Palin's slogan

A badge bearing Sarah Palin's slogan

George Bush has been ' disappeared', Vice-President Dick Cheney's heart has had to be restarted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is nowhere to be seen.

Why isn't McCain running as an independent? Perhaps because, as Obama's adverts forever remind us, this 'maverick' voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time.

At the Woodbridge rally, Joe the Plumber - a worker recently captured on TV confronting Obama - is the symbol of the little guy who will be destroyed by the tax-and-spend madness of Obama.

It would later emerge that Joe was not called Joe and wasn't even a licensed plumber, but at the rally it seems he has become a kind of Spartacus figure.

I chat to Marilyn the Plumber and Phil the Bricklayer. When McCain starts talking about the disgusting idea of 'spreading the wealth', a woman behind me starts yelling: 'No to socialism!'

The mention of Palin brings forth the chants, 'Drill, Baby, Drill'. Where is Dr Freud when you need him? I am feeling more than a little foreign.

Driving here through epic scenery of mountains and forest, David and I heard the Right-wing DJs ranting: 'Do we want to be America or France?' France is the bastion of socialism, apparently. Someone should tell President Sarkozy.

Socialism has replaced communism as the bete noire for decent, hardworking folk, even though they are feeling the pinch and hit hardest by lack of medical insurance. Desperate tactics? Maybe, but they work.

Time and again people tell me there is just something about Obama they don't trust.

They are not all redneck racists. Many McCain supporters are thoughtful and polite. We met only one man, an old black guy whose number plate read 'I liveth', who didn't want to reveal his voting intentions.

John McCain

On the campaign trail: John McCain speaks to supporters in New Mexico

Most people want to chat, though it has to be said that being on the road does involve meeting lots of lonely men in motels. But that's the American dream for you.

Driving from one place to another to flog their wares are the Phils, Jims and Stevens. The ones who are keen to tell David some of their best friends are black; who tell us all Southerners are pretty low down the food chain; the scary taxi driver straight out of the film Deliverance, who says McCain is way too liberal. He is a Christian Conservative, obese in his shorts, his arm in a splint.

Mind you, we then meet a woman, steering her filthy car with tattooed arms, who tells us she won't vote and 'doesn't give a s***'. She doesn't pay tax or expect social security. She has never heard of Sarah Palin. It's easy to forget some of the poorest people in this country are not black but white.

Nothing is clear-cut. At the starting point of our trip, Louisville, Kentucky, we find ourselves in a hip hotel where people just aren't that interested in the election. It's been going on way too long already. Or they have made their minds up long ago.

Louisville is the birthplace of Muhammad Ali and, as I wander around the huge museum built in his honour, I am struck by his words: 'I am America. The part you won't recognise.'

When Ali was growing up in Louisville, black people were banned from many places. This was, as he said, despite the fact that 'negroes had been working for 310 years for America, working 16 hours a day without a pay day, fighting all the wars for America'.

Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam and his conversion to Islam cost him dearly, though he has since been reincarnated as an unthreatening and ill old man. Who now of his stature would say this about Iraq?

US map

All mapped out: The route Suzanne and David followed

Many times, in many ways, I'm told Iraq and Afghanistan are winnable wars and McCain will protect America in a way Obama won't.

It is often black people who seem to have a different view. Tony, a black driver, tells us American history is black history - and this is in Richmond, Virginia, the centre of the Confederacy.

I read there are now a lot of interracial relationships, but the way people stare at me and David, it doesn't feel like it. Some black women clearly don't like the idea and kiss their teeth - and nor do some white men.

It feels more like suspicion rather than hostility, but still comes as a surprise in this ethnic melting pot.

When we venture into an El Salvadorean bar, the customers can barely contain themselves. All are from El Salvador and no one speaks English.

In their eyes, the fact that I am with a black man clearly makes me fair game, as it sometimes does on the street when we are explicitly looked up and down.

In bars I register the initial shock, often a flicker behind the eyes, but usually the unfailing ethic of 'Have a nice day' service kicks in.

It is still difficult for many British people to understand just how segregated America remains.

Cities such as Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles are physically divided. One crosses from a 'nice' - i.e. white - area into a ghetto or just a different kind of neighbourhood. If you're in a car, the driver locks the door.

Of course, there is a large black middle class, but there are many areas of this vast country where the racial divide is rarely crossed, where people live in separate communities and where any infringement of the boundaries is regarded by both sides as deeply undesirable.

In a bar, I meet Sadie, a black woman in her 50s from Philadelphia. I am still slightly reeling from a visit to the Civil War Centre.

This was a war about slavery - I don't think we were taught that in school. The South depended on slavery for its economy. Though Abraham Lincoln said 'if slavery is not wrong then nothing is not wrong', he would have continued it if expedient.

A few days earlier we had been in Hodgenville, Kentucky, where a replica of the log cabin Lincoln was born in is kept in a mausoleum. Very bizarre.

Number plate

The car number plate of one of the Americans Suzanne and David met along the way

In the Civil War Centre, a nice old man explained how Obama could win - because all the minorities ( including women) may come together and overtake 'ordinary Americans'. Anyway, he asks us: 'Why did you get rid of Churchill?'

Sadie has a different take. 'It's just modern-day slavery here. There ain't no unions.' There are places she feels unwelcome. 'Martin Luther King forgot Richmond, put it that way,' she says. She likes Obama because he's a spiritual man.

What she sees as spiritual, others see as too cool. His composure during the third presidential debate was read by some as more ' smirking' elitism, though at the bar where we caught it on TV, we could barely hear his words as most people were watching sport on another channel.

Palin is the opposite, down with normal folk, 'pushing it up' on TV's Saturday Night Live. Days of discussion followed her appearance on the comedy show. Was she showing a sense of humour or should she be displaying more gravitas?

This was hammered home by Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama. It is quite something when it takes a Republican general to make the case for taxation and remind the country of how far it has moved to the Right.

On the road, many had been keen to emphasise that their dislike of Obama was not racially based and told us they would have voted for Powell had he chosen to stand. Still, the Right wing dismissed Powell's endorsement of Obama as being a 'tribal thing', which is out-and-out racism.

In reality though, much talk about race is in code. The 'trust' issues around Obama are sometimes a way of discussing race. But not always. Sometimes people are just afraid of change.

The Bradley effect is another threat to Obama. Named after Tom Bradley, a black politician who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being ahead in the polls, it refers to an alleged tendency for voters to claim they are going to vote for a black candidate but then opt for his white opponent when they are in the polling booth.

The suspicion around Obama now, weirdly, is that he has raised too much money, and that he is trying to appeal to the 'regular white guys' and break down the all-pervasive small town mythology Americans hold dear.

This is odd because most actually live in huge and segregated cities, and the rural areas have suffered most from the economic downturn.

Stopping off in Lewisburg, West Virginia, I try to buy a newspaper, but there are no normal shops left. There are art galleries and chi-chi restaurants where you can eat chocolate torte sprinkled with gold dust, but the local shops have been destroyed by a huge out-of-town Wal-Mart superstore.

The economy remains a huge electoral issue but many seem genuinely perplexed by it. After all, they are continually being told - and telling us - they are the best and richest country in the world. Their patriotism is unnerving but binds this diverse nation together.

While David went to church, I sat in a McDonald's restaurant. I was served by Mexicans and had a Peruvian family on one side of me, Ethiopians on the other. I assumed many of these people cannot vote, as they are illegal citizens, though a young professional couple at the McCain rally disagreed.

'The Democrats will bus them in,' they insist. 'You have to understand that Democrats are very angry people.'

They are keen for me to know that being Republican is not PC in their workplaces. Ann Marie says she doesn't really care why people don't like Obama as long as they don't vote for him.

Along the way, the only straightforward conversations about race have been with black people. 'Look at McCain's body language,' they say. 'He don't want to get beaten by a black guy. He won't call him by name but always "the senator".'

Finally we get to Washington, this imperial city that Obama has sewn up. Michaela, a half-Mexican student, tells me how the Hispanic vote has swung behind Obama.

Still, I feel less certain after this trip that Obama has it in the bag. It will be a close call, I think. His victory would give final credence to the American dream, but it's not over yet.

We started our journey in the birthplace of the great Hunter S. Thompson, and I remember at the edge of the mountain, when the caffeine took hold, feeling very anxious.

I really want to be wrong, and the polls tell me I am, but I left America with a sick feeling that Obama could still lose. In which case, we all do.

They talk of 'trust' but they really mean 'black'


We are inside a concrete mausoleum in Hodgenville, Kentucky, when the reality of modern America starts to take hold.

'It's a bit tacky, isn't it?' says Suzanne. I nod. Can they really use a replica wooden shack as a shrine to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln?

'We are due a good President,' says the shrine's attendant, Stephen Brown. He is among the white Americans backing Obama.

'The problem is people around here go to church every Sunday,' Stephen whispers. 'When their preacher says Obama supports gay rights or abortion, and that's sinful, they believe it. These are good people but they listen to what these preachers say.'

If the polls are right, Kentucky is solid McCain territory. But on the ground, things seem less clear.

Over breakfast at the Springs Inn in Lexington, I meet Phil. 'I'm a redneck from Georgia,' says Phil, 'but I don't like McCain. Just because he's a Republican doesn't mean I'm gonna automatically vote for him.'

Phil, a fiftysomething pipe organ maker enraged by the economic meltdown, reveals his admiration for Sarah Palin - She's something else' - and says he would have voted for Colin Powell had he been the Republican candidate.

'He's a war hero, an experienced politician and he has respect at home and abroad. But he don't want the aggravation. Besides, most black people think he's an Uncle Tom, so he wouldn't get their vote.'

Phil is one of the few white Americans prepared to talk to us about race-politics, though, like many others, he claims 'race has nothing to do with it'.

Obama, meanwhile, still provokes fear and distrust.

David Matthews meets a McCain fan in Woodbridge, Virginia

Party time: David meets a McCain fan in Woodbridge, Virginia

'We don't know who he is or where he's come from,' claims Mary, a portly, middle-aged IT consultant, at a Lexington bar. 'He hasn't got the experience.'

While it's true that Obama is no political heavyweight, what experience did George W. Bush have, other than being the son of a former President?

And what about Palin? 'She's a mother of five children,' says Mary, 'and that takes some doing.'

The issues of 'trust' and 'inexperience' come up repeatedly as reasons to be fearful of Obama. Aside from their literal meaning, these words also strike me as extended code for 'black', tapping into a latent fear of 'the other'.

Americans live in constant fear, whether of ethnic differences, foreign attack, illness or financial ruin. No wonder US politics is fuelled by conspiracy theories.

'Obama's definitely gonna win but they'll try to take him out,' predicts George, a black security guard at the Keeneland race track, outside Lexington. 'But Obama's got more security than any candidate in history, so he'll be OK.'

Watching racegoers sip mint juleps, the demarcation lines between blacks, whites and Hispanics is clear. I notice only one other mixed-race 'couple'. In fact, during the entire week with Suzanne, I see just two obvious black-white relationships.

At first, many Americans assume Suzanne and I are an 'item'. We receive the odd stare, though it feels like the result of genuine smalltown curiosity than anything more sinister.

On the face of it, America seems to have moved on from Jim Crow.

Far more crude, though, is the gratuitous attention Suzanne garners from men, simply for being female.

During the Democratic nomination race, I had argued with many female friends that America was more ready for a white female President than a black male one. Judging by Hillary Clinton's doomed campaign and the salacious looks Suzanne receives on our trip, I'm about to eat humble pie.

'Americans are too stupid to care about the election,' warns Jim, a 52-year-old New Yorker on business in Huntington, West Virginia.

'If you're as low down the food chain as most people are around here, you don't give a damn who the President is. That's why they'll vote for idiots like McCain and Palin.'

The following day Suzanne and I stop at Lewisburg, the oldest settlement in West Virginia.

Black Americans are so thin on the ground that for the first time I get 'you're not from these parts' looks. Nevertheless, the open hostility I had anticipated is absent. 'Southerners smile in your face then stab you in the back,' one man explains.

Outside the Civil War Centre in Richmond, black Americans such as driver Tony are more explicit about the deep-seated racial divisions.

'Listen, if you're drowning and a man's holding a life-jacket, do you really care what colour he is? Throw the damn ring! Right now, America is drowning and Obama's the man that can pull us out the water. But a lot of Americans don't see it that way.'

As we reach northern Virginia, the political temperature is at boiling point.

Despite the McCain camp portraying Obama as a 'danger' to US security, the Illinois Senator is still riding high in the polls and drawing crowds of 100,000. In contrast, 5,000 are at a McCain gathering in wealthy Woodbridge.

Within seconds of clearing security at the event, Suzanne and I are ushered through the crowd by a McCain campaigner to our front-row seats by the Presidential candidate's platform - to appear as a publicity-friendly inter-racial couple for the TV cameras.

The following day, perhaps in need of some redemption after my role as a Republican mannequin, I go to the First Baptist Church of Chesterbrook in McLean, another prosperous suburb.

In August, a vandal had daubed the word 'n*****' on the front door of the 19th Century chapel - a reminder that racism is still alive and well in America.

The modest congregation is entirely black and led by a charismatic young preacher, the Reverend Todd Brown. He says that while he would not endorse any particular candidate, 'Senator Obama has shown calm and decorum in the face of personal attacks from the McCain campaign'.

Afterwards, I ask him why so few black Americans support the Republicans. 'When it comes to policy and other matters, Democrats consider the middle class more [where most black American families sit economically] than the Republican Party, which often makes decisions only to the advantage of the upper class in our society.'

By the time I reach the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech, the outcome of the election is still unclear.

Many Republicans are still voicing disquiet with McCain; many white Democrats are still smarting over Hillary Clinton's nomination defeat; and many black Americans are still circumspect or too bruised by history to make predictions.

The polls, the pundits, and even the mythology of the American Dream itself favours an Obama victory on November 4. But as one young black voter says: 'If McCain doesn't win, maybe they'll just fix the result like they did in the last two elections. In America, anything can happen.'

SOURCE: Daily Mail


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