There have been a lot of articles published in recent days with man-on-the-street quotes from West Virginia along the lines of, "I heard that Obama is a Muslim and his wife’s an atheist."
Now, I’m not denying that this sort of sentiment is a problem for Obama, nor am I necessarily denying that it’s a particularly severe problem in West Virginia. But can we please take this reporting with a little grain of salt, at least? I’m not sure whether these sorts of quotes tell us all that much about the electoral dynamic in West Virginia, as opposed to the psyche of the reporters writing the stories.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, if you’re a reporter, and you conduct enough man-on-the-street interviews, you can find some idiot to say "Obama’s a Muslim" — or even "Obama’s a n***er" — anywhere. You can find racists and xenophobes and conspiratorial crazies in California, New York, Texas, Illinois; you can find ‘em all over the damn country.
Can you find them more easily in West Virginia? Perhaps. But you’re also much more likely to publish their quotes in a story about West Virginia, because it fits the storyline perfectly. Indeed, such a quote is precisely what these reporters are looking for when they start conducting the interviews in West Virginia. Whereas in California or New York, they’d probably ignore the random racist quote, in West Virginia they go out, they turn on the yokel-detecting radar, they hold up a microphone to the redneckiest-lookin’ redneck they can find, and — voila! — journalistic magic happens.
Again: I’m not denying the real, genuine significance of racism as a factor in Obama’s problems, nor am I suggesting that Appalachia is devoid of racists. But please, let’s not jump to the conclusion that, when Hillary wins tomorrow’s primary by a margin of 70% to 30%, it means that 70 percent of West Virginia Democrats are racists, just because we read a handful of cherrypicked quotes that seem to validate that preconceived notion.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters prefer her to Obama for a whole bunch of reasons, some of them cultural, some of them political, some of them overtly racial, some of them subconsciously racial, and some of them falling into various other categories. While I disagree with their choice (and I strongly disagree with Hillary’s conscious or reckless exploitation of the prejudices that do exist), it’s an insult to those voters to paint them all with a broad brush and assume the only reason they’ve voting for Hillary is because they hate black people, or people with the middle name "Hussein," or whatever.
It’s possible to condemn prejudice without engaging in it, and that’s what’s called for here. Some people in West Virginia (and elsewhere) are voting on the basis of racism, and that sucks. Most others aren’t, and we shouldn’t assume that they are. And that’s all I have to say about that.
UPDATE: Poblano writes:
I do want to write a little bit more about the
notion that West Virginians are racist. … [T]he short version is: yes,
there are racist voters in West Virginia, but there are racist voters
in every state. The primary determinant of the extent to which racism
tends to be more manifest is education levels, and so the effects may
be more noticeable in West Virgnia, a state with poor academic
achievement. But there is no reason to believe that West Virgnians are
particularly racist, relative to their education levels.
That seems right to me.