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Race and the U.S. election — visitors’ views

Editor’s note: Journalists Nidhi Sharma and Vykintas Pugaciauskas are two of nine 2008 fellows of the Twin Cities-based World Press Institute. The foreign journalists are spending eight weeks in the United States, being exposed to the U.S. free-press system as well as the social and cultural diversity of the United States. They covered the Republican National Convention last week in St. Paul; the following two excerpts are reprinted from the fellows’ ongoing blog.

By Nidhi Sharma

Nidhi Sharma
Nidhi Sharma

I am neither black nor white. I am somewhere in between — what some might call “colored” and back in my country — India — “sunburnt.” (Please don’t go by my photograph: It’s thankfully very airbrushed.)

And why am I telling you this? Well, it seems that it does matter in United States of America. A nuclear superpower, which will elect its 44th president in November, seems to be struggling with a fundamental issue: the color of skin. God Bless America!

It seems strange that a country that has always taken pride in being a role model for the world is struggling with race. When one watches the Barack Obama vs. John McCain slugfest from a distance, it seems a regular tough fight, with issues like the economy, inflation, unemployment, the war in Iraq, climate change and nuclear proliferation.

At least it seemed so from India. It did not look like a fight between a black and a white man.

Lawrence R Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at University of Minnesota, says there are scientific studies which show that Democratic candidates have not done well with white men. They still have to gauge whether Obama does worse than any other, i.e. white, Democratic candidate. As you see, there is no precedent so far of a black man running for the highest constitutional office.

Jacobs doesn’t mince any words: “Race is a big factor.”

It sure is. Why else would a motley group of World Press Institute fellows — all different shapes, sizes, colors and nationalities — enter a bus on University Avenue and face rude comments from African-American passengers like “Please don’t stand close to me, I might pick your pocket.” Or “I have never seen so many white people together. They must have run away from Mexico.”

OUCH. Correction: I am sunburnt. Not white. And quite comfortable in my skin.

Nidhi Sharma, 28, is a special correspondent reporting on national politics and government for The Pioneer, an English-language national daily newspaper in New Delhi.

At their peril

By Vykintas Pugaciauskas

Vykintas Pugaciauskas
Vykintas Pugaciauskas

It was the same bus route on University Avenue this afternoon, and I had a gentle pat on my shoulder. “Are you a local?” a girl who sat behind me asked and, learning that I was from Europe, went on with what sounded like a tinge of disbelief: “and you simply got on this bus?”

I am not sure she was referring to the fact that we were the only white people on the bus, but it instantly made me recall a couple of articles about race that I had read this morning.

“We just disagree” that race will be a factor in the election, Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro is quoted by USA Today.

Numbers published by the New York Times might account for this confidence: Among Democratic delegates at the Denver convention, 23 percent were black, almost double the national share of the black population. They were surely cheering the first African-American candidate on a major party ticket, but is this sentiment shared by those “bitter” white working-class Democratic voters?

Thus for all this professed confidence from the Obama campaign, race in this election still is what Donald Rumsfeld would call an “unknown unknown,” along with some “known unknowns” such as Hillary Clinton supporters’ vote and, to somewhat lesser extent, the conservative vote.

That is why the Democrats might not be totally sincere about the race issue even if their candidate does everything to skirt it. They must know that while the country might have moved forward, ignoring race would be at their peril. But they might also feel somewhat helpless to foster enough “change” before Nov. 4.

And that is why election surprises might be in store.

Vykintas Pugaciauskas, 30, has been editing and reporting on international news and covering Lithuanian foreign policy for Lithuanian Television in Vilnius for the past 10 years.

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