Sunday, October 12, 2008

Race: An issue that shouldn't be ignored

By DeWayne Wickham

Like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the issue of race is largely unacknowledged by the presidential candidates who are hurtling towards the Election Day finish line.

In the opening page of Ellison’s novel, which won the 1953 National Book Award, the main character – an unnamed black man – explains that he’s invisible not because he is a ghostly creation of Edgar Allen Poe or Hollywood filmmakers. He is unseen, he says, because people have chosen to ignore his existence.

And so it is in the current presidential contest with the matter of race.

Neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama has shown a willingness to address the peculiar effects of this nation’s lingering racism – except for the Philadelphia address Obama was pressured into giving to distance himself from his former pastor’s scandalous talk.

Each man, for vastly different reasons, has treated race as a invisible issue. McCain, because Republicans effectively severed their ties to blacks in 1968 when they embraced a Southern strategy that pandered to the rear guard of the Dixiecrat movement. Obama, because his political handlers fear that as the first black to win the presidential nomination of a major party he cannot risk being pigeon-holed as a “black politician.”

And so it may be left to Bob Schieffer, the moderator of tomorrow’s final presidential debate, to force Obama and McCain to talk about race. Getting presidential candidates to do this is not unchartered ground for Schieffer, the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and host of “Face the Nation.”

Four years ago, he was the only presidential debate moderator to put a race question to President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry. “Do you see a need for affirmative action programs, or have we moved far enough along that we no longer need to use race and gender as a factor in school admissions and federal and state contracts and so on?” he asked.

In 2000, it was an audience member who kept the presidential candidates from completely ducking a public discussion of race with a question she put to Texas Gov. Bush and Vice President Al Gore during the third debate. “How will your administration address diversity, inclusiveness, and what role will affirmative action play in your overall plan?” the woman asked.

No, neither of these questions was a deep probe of America’s long-running race problems, but they kept the issue visible at an important moment. This time around Schieffer can accomplish more.

By asking McCain and Obama what they would do to close the yawning unemployment gap between blacks and whites, Schieffer can make these problems visible to many Americans. By pressing them to say something about the wide disparities in the medical treatment that leave blacks far less likely than whites to received recommended care, or asking what they’ll do to close the achievement gap between black and white public school students, he can force them to address these troubling matters.

Unless these long-standing ills are address, no solution to America’s ailing economy will produce a result that’s fair to all its citizens. Sure, the presidential campaign isn’t just about race, but this nation’s continuing racial problems ought to be a serious part of the dialogue.

“When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who happens to be looking through him at the time,” Ellison wrote in the “Invisible Man.”

Neither McCain nor Obama should be allowed to avoid giving specific answers to specific questions about the problems that afflict blacks.

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