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Getting Beyond Bias

No doubt by now you’ve seen — or at least heard of — the video starring comedienne Sarah Silverman, in which she employs her trademark bawdy language and edgy humor on behalf of her favorite presidential candidate. That would be Senator Barack Obama or, as Silverman says, the “goodest person we’ve ever had as a presidential choice.” Looking straight at the camera, Silverman speaks about Bubbe and Zayde, living in that electorally important state of Florida with other Bubbes and Zaydes, enjoying their well-earned golden years, relishing visits from the grandchildren and, yes, holding onto the prejudices that could prevent them from voting for a black man on November 4.

No matter your politics, thank Silverman for this: She uses over-the-top satire to help us confront an uncomfortable truth. Race has been a subtext of this laborious presidential campaign ever since a young lawmaker with an exotic name and skin the color of coffee dared to defy history and set his sights on the White House. There have been moments, notably when Senator Obama delivered his extraordinary speech in Philadelphia last March, when it seemed as if Americans were of a mind to honestly confront the nation’s original sin. And unfortunately, lately there have been times when uglier utterances, stoked by divisive political rhetoric, have served as a brutal reminder of how far we have to go to perfect the union.

Mostly, though, the subject of race has been publicly, politely ignored. In one sense that legitimates the premise of Obama’s candidacy: that Americans are willing to look beyond race to judge on experience, policies and character. But there’s no getting around the fact that the subtext is still playing, even if the tone is muted, and that racial bias alone may keep some white Americans from pulling the Democratic lever on Election Day.

Silverman argues that the Bubbe and the Black Man are more alike than different — they both love track suits and jewelry, Cadillacs and, ahem, their grand-kids — but the fact that she has to use outrageous stereotyped examples to prove the point, well… proves the larger point. Decades of scientific research shows that racial biases are embedded and subtle, but very real. As Nicholas Kristof wrote recently in The New York Times, “a huge array of research suggests that 50 percent or more of whites have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to racial discrimination.” The Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam reported last week on new experiments showing that because of race, on a subconscious level, “volunteers were quicker to associate McCain with being American than Obama — and the strength of these subconscious associations predicted people’s voting intentions.”

This isn’t the overt, intentional racism of the past. The racial biases detected in these studies are subconscious, and may be just one of many factors entering a voter’s mind as he or she casts a ballot. There are plenty of reasons one might oppose an Obama presidency other than race, and surely plenty of white Americans who find his biracial heritage and outlook an attraction.

The good news is that research shows these racial biases altering over time, which makes intuitive sense. Younger white Americans are growing up in a world that, thanks to population shifts and the ubiquity of the Internet, is more tolerant of difference and welcoming of varying races and cultures than their parents’ and, especially, their grandparents’ worlds. That comfort level with the “other” is certainly one reason why so many young voters enthusiastically back an Obama candidacy.

Which brings us back to Bubbe and Zayde. What Sarah Silverman says bluntly — “You know why your grandparents don’t like Barack Obama, because his name sounds scary…” — exposes the code words often used in polite company. Instead of dismissing him because he had an African father, Obama is (falsely) accused of being a Muslim, or dismissed as a “shvartse,” which may be the only term in Yiddish to describe a person who is black, but too often is used pejoratively. Or his achievements are minimized, or rendered suspect, as when a woman asked at a recent Jewish gathering, “How did he get into Harvard Law School?” The implication is that he’s different; he’s not like us. And so, he can’t be trusted.

This demonization of the “other” is something that Jews are painfully familiar with, and ought to resist at every turn. It is antithetical to Jewish values and Jewish experience. When racial bias is expressed, or implied, it should be called out for what it is: unacceptable.

In that stirring speech in Philadelphia, Obama implored all Americans to “realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams.” An America that recognizes differences and looks past them is a dream that should be shared by all.


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