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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stephen Henderson: A Detroiter Perspective


Racial attitudes that Obama must address


I am all about the euphoria over Barack Obama capturing the Democratic nomination for president.


It's history, a tremendous sign of progress toward an America without racial barriers.

But I'm worried about Charlene Reynolds. And I'm worried that there are lots of people just like her.

Everything about Reynolds suggests a gimme vote for the Democratic candidate: She's a college graduate and a retired civil servant and union member living in western Wayne County. She voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and twice for Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She's against the Iraq war, fed up with economic stagnation, thinks there should be broader access to health care.

But in a recent letter to the Free Press, she said: "I do not trust black people in general, and especially black politicians. ... My overall opinion of middle-class, educated black people is that they feel superior to whites and trust only their own kind. ... I would not vote for Obama because he is inexperienced, has not earned the right to my vote, and he is black."

The letter prompted me to visit with Reynolds, who explained that she wrote it in response to a syndicated column that appeared in the Free Press by Leonard Pitts. The Pulitzer Prize winner from the Miami Herald wrote about the disaffection many working-class whites feel with regard to Obama. He called them out for being conned into racial bigotry as a distraction from their real problems: lack of education and economic opportunity.

Reynolds took offense. She hasn't been duped into her racial estrangement, she said. She's not some uneducated redneck who thinks blacks are dirty or stupid or inherently unequal. She comes by her views from experience.

"During my time as a state employee, I encountered mostly black clients," wrote Reynolds, who worked as a welfare assistance counselor and a probation/parole officer. In the welfare system, she said she dealt with black men "adorned with a great deal of gold jewelry," who had "two baby mammas." As a probation officer, she made home visits to drug dealers whose parents would then call her supervisor to complain. "They apparently condoned their children's chosen occupation," she wrote.

"My coworkers, mostly black people, were also an eye-opener," Reynolds continued. "They worked harder to avoid working than they would have if they just did their jobs."

She summed up her thoughts this way: "I guess what I want you to know is that the instincts of the white lower-class population are sometimes based in the fact of reality."

We didn't print Reynolds' letter, frankly, because running it without any context would have sent the wrong message about this newspaper, and the discussion we're trying to cultivate in.

But I followed up with Reynolds at her home in Van Buren Township because I think her brand of racism presents a particular challenge to Obama's candidacy.

I thank her for welcoming me and for her honesty. That said, I find her bigotry is more complicated and nuanced -- but no less ignorant -- than the overt, cross-burning racism that gets portrayed as prototypical. Reynolds has reasons for her racism, she told me.

"The black culture is just different," she said. "It's not so much that I don't want a black president, it's just knowing there are differences between us and that he's part of those differences."

If you're Barack Obama, how do you combat that? How on Earth do you refute what for Reynolds is a lifetime of encounters that have led her -- wrongly -- to her broad but firm conclusions?

There's no doubt Obama needs Reynolds, and people like her, if he expects to win in Michigan and much of the nation. She's a base voter for Democrats in this state. If she's not on board for the party nominee, the fight for swing votes becomes moot.

In a way, Reynolds' attitude speaks volumes about how easy it still is in this country to lead a life of racial isolation. She has no black friends, she told me. She has few black neighbors. Her entire exposure to African Americans, at least as an adult, was through her work, and was negative.

As a result, she has spent a lifetime haunted by racial apparitions that border on the comically absurd.

She believes blacks "make careers" out of welfare, but whites don't. She believes middle-class blacks can be "normal" in mixed company, but resort to conspiracy-laden anti-white rants when they're among other blacks; even educated blacks, she says, just don't trust whites.

Reynolds' generalizations aren't worth dignifying with a response, but the Obama campaign had better have one -- for her and others like her.

At the end of our conversation, Reynolds conceded that she would probably end up voting for him, if only because she's so much at odds with Republican John McCain's stance on the war and the economy. I wouldn't bank on it, though. This kind of emotion dies hard in the privacy of the voting booth.

STEPHEN HENDERSON is deputy editorial page editor of the Free Press. Contact him at 313-222-6659, or at

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