If Obama Wins, Race Has Its Place in Coverage

If Sen. Barack Obama is elected president, there's little doubt that the historic nature of his victory will belong in the lead of any story. But it would be hard to argue –- given his record-obliterating fundraising, the vast diversity of support and the oft-praised community organizing -- that it was his race that propelled Obama into the White House.


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Spacer SpacerIf Sen. John McCain wins the election, launching Gov. Sarah Palin into history as the first female vice president, it may prove that some white voters could not get beyond pedestrian bigotry or their own ignorance to vote for Obama. But given the strength of the Republican party, which held onto the White House despite deep dissatisfaction with President Bush in his first term; and given the invigorating effect of Palin's entry into the fray, it would be hard to chalk a McCain-Palin victory up to mere prejudice.

So give race its place. But just that.

Tell the racial reaction story in the event of an Obama victory (and the almost-first story if he falls short). If he wins, interview the older black people who thought they'd never see anyone with their complexion occupy the Oval Office. Talk to the black children who'll have a new vision of the possible. Yes, seek out the civil rights lions and the historians for the perspectives that would give an Obama presidency context and profundity. Predictable as those stories may be, your public will want and need them.

But remember that that will only be a part of the racial story to be told.

There are also stories out there about what happens to race relations when a candidate's ideals, organizing prowess, money-raising potency and stage presence seize the spotlight away from the matter of race. There will be stories about the young people in your community, activated like never before, who will have learned something about the depth and limitations of intolerance through their political activism. Rather than going for the "We are the World" story, tap into what they've learned –- for better or ill -- from this journey.

Surely some journalists will want to declare an Obama victory to be the end of racism, which would be just as naïve and simplistic as the act of drawing too straight a line from the civil rights movement to this election. Neither captures the complexity of the truth: that even bigots may find Obama's plans superior to McCain's; that it may be more important to many voters that Obama is not descended from U.S. slavery, Jim Crow and sit-ins.

In the end, those stories, in pure human-interest terms, are fascinating.

What other questions can you ask on Election Day and beyond?

  • Does a black man's victory hold any meaning for Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and others who contend with real and perceived obstacles around race and ethnicity?
  • How significant is the fear among white voters that the rise of a black man to the highest office will simply replace one kind of racial bias with another?
  • Stoked in recent days by news of two inept skinheads and their nefarious plot, how palpable is the worry among voters that someone will try to hurt Obama if he wins?
  • Has the nation been stretched by Obama's success so that there is an immediate benefit in local and state races? Will he make it easier for people in your community to set aside prejudice where other candidates of color on the Nov. 4 ballot are concerned? Consider that question for women in Congressional and lesser races. Will Sen. Hillary Clinton's near-victory in the primaries and Palin's ascendance help blunt sexism's impact on big and small races in your community?

As you plan your coverage, be sure to steer clear of the meaningless, racially coded phrases -- "values voters," "soccer moms," etc. -- that gain so much currency during the frenzy of elections coverage. Avoid the assumption -- most often directed at people of color -- that a black person voting for a black man has automatically made a racial, not political, decision. Remember that few people use race or ethnicity alone to decide how they'll vote. We've talked about those things before in columns you can find here and here.

If Obama's race for the White House has proven anything, it has shown how wrong conventional wisdom can be. Cover race and ethnicity in this election with that in mind. Seek the unconventional. That's where you'll find the story of this unprecedented moment.

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.

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