The Shirley Sherrod affair has ignited new charges of racism from left and right and raised the issue of whether -- and to what degree -- racism survives in a nation led by an African-American president. Let's take this issue and bring it home. Does racism survive here in the Midwest which is, after all, Barack Obama's home turf?
Well, sure. Racism survives in the Midwest, just as it does in the rest of the country (and, as any traveler knows, around the world). The real question is where it survives, and to what degree, and is it affecting the way people think and vote?
Any report on this has to be pretty impressionistic. If there any accurate studies on Midwestern racism, I don't know about them. But I've been traveling the Midwest constantly for several years now and have tried to take the region's pulse on racism, as well as on other issues. So let me take an admittedly imperfect stab at this.
Anybody who denies the existence of racism in the Midwest isn't listening. But it's my impression that overt racism differs by place and generation. I'm less convinced that politics -- left vs. right -- have that much to do with it.
Generally speaking, I've found less overt racism -- out-and-out racial slurs, for instance -- in cities and among young generations. As an old white guy originally from a small town, it pains me to report that small-town people, especially seniors, are more likely to be openly racist or to judge people by their skin.
There are reasons for this, I think. The physical presence of blacks isn't required for racism, any more than countries need Jews to be anti-Semitic. In fact, people who live around minorities and deal with them daily -- people in cities, in other words -- are more likely to take these differences in stride. In addition, the older generation grew up in the days before the civil rights movement, when institutionalized racism, in the north as well as the south, was a fact of life. Some people, having imbibed this casual racism in their youth, cling to it today. For a younger generation -- and by this, I mean people 55 or 60 or younger -- the civil rights struggle was part of their political education.
I've been told that there are old farmers in downstate Illinois who wouldn't mind taking a shot at Obama. Later, in one of the most conservative corners of Iowa, I asked a well-connected friend about this. He said that, if I wanted to hear pure unbridled racism liberally laced with the n-word, I could just drop in at the town cafe any morning and listen to the old farmers over their coffee and doughnuts. But this man, himself a conservative Republican in his 50s, said his generation simply felt differently. Not that they liked Obama, he said. But they disliked him because he was a liberal, not because he was black.
During the presidential campaign, I recall talking with an old friend, a small-town elder, who said he couldn't vote for Obama "because I'm just a bigot." No explanation, no apology. I don't think you'd find this in cities, except from people who knew that you agreed with them. I'd also bet that this old friend is an embarrassment to his own children and grandchildren.
But what about the quieter forms of racism, the unstated attitudes that have the power to drive action? The Twin Cities of Minnesota are going through a belated white flight as whites move to the suburbs to escape recent waves of immigrants, many of them from Africa: this shift is a factor in the lurch of Minnesota politics to the right. The existence of Gary, Indiana, with its 84 percent black population, is a psychological barrier to the integration of northwest Indiana into the Chicago economic region: too many whites there feel that this economic integration implies an embrace of Gary.
It's a fact that the departure of heavy industry from the Midwest has created an archipelago of black inner city ghettos in old manufacturing towns from Iowa to Ohio, impoverished black populations whose ancestors came north to work in the factories of the day but who were stranded when those factories went away. The Midwest's true disaster areas -- Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, Benton Harbor, East St. Louis -- are all majority black. The same decline, of course, has hurt millions of white workers, too, but these black ghettos are particularly poor and isolated. Globalization simply has passed them by.
This a reality, but so is the fact that these ghettos are as much economic as they are racial. There's plenty of racial integration in Midwestern housing -- for those who can afford it. In this sense, the global economy is amazingly color-blind. But it's also cruel to those left behind, including inner-city African-Americans. As the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has written, these people are in the ghettos because they're black, but they stay there because they're poor.
But is the growing political opposition to President Obama rooted in racism? Perhaps some of it is, but I suspect this is over-rated. It's not possible to drive the Midwest and be out of the range of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their fellow fulminators. All go out of their way to deny charges of racism. They may or may not be sincere, but I'd be slow to tar all their listeners with the racist brush.
There's some tea party activity in the Midwest but, from what I can find, not as much as you'd expect. Much of it is rooted in economic collapse and economic change, spurred by people who've lost their place in an ordered society and are just plain angry. Some of this may be racist, especially among the older Tea Partiers. But my guess is that they're mad at Obama not because he's black but because they think he's a liberal or a socialist (even though most of these folk wouldn't know a socialist if he had a hammer and sickle tattooed on his forehead).
Many of these people, after all, voted for Obama. Many may have voted for him despite his race, because they saw him as clearly the stronger candidate. But Obama did sweep the upper Midwest, including traditionally Republican Indiana. If the election was reheld today, Obama would lose many of those votes, but it's hard to argue that racism would be the deciding factor.
If there's discrimination at work in the Midwest today, it's probably more aimed at immigrants, especially Mexicans, than at African-Americans. Outside the cities, it's these immigrants who are changing the demographic landscape of the region and challenging traditional ways of life. Midwestern congressmen like Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Iowa's Steve King regularly slander immigrants in a way they wouldn't dream of talking about African-Americans.
Much of the Midwest, including Indiana and downstate Illinois, had a vigorous Ku Klux Klan until 30 or 40 years ago. During the 2008 primaries season, I visited Beardstown, a meatpacking town in southern Illinois that used to be a "sundowner:" no black would dare be caught in town after dusk. The Beardstown mayor, a self-proclaimed "redneck" named Bob Walter, told me his choice for president was Al Gore, with Obama as vice president. I expressed surprise that the mayor of a once-racist town would favor Obama and he said, "Oh, we've kind of gotten over that black-white stuff now. What we have a problem with is the Mexicans."
Obviously, this all adds up to something short of a racial Shangri-la, a utopia of brotherly love. But it's more complicated than the pundits who would present Midwestern racial attitudes in a literally black-and-white framework. Many Midwestern whites have a long ways to go to catch up with legal changes of a half century ago. Many Midwestern blacks have crippling problems, but they're more likely to be economic or educational than racial.