Post-Election Backlash

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 06, 2008

In Lancaster, Ohio, on Monday before the election at 9pm two men dressed in camouflage pants and camouflage hats walk up to the local Obama headquarters and slow down to a stroll. One of the volunteers asks “How are ya tonight.” “Doin alright,” one of the men answers. “What are you doing here?” “Getting out the vote for Obama,” she responds. “Obama? Hell no, I’d never vote for a n—–.” He looks to his right where a Nigerian American woman sits inside a van waiting to head out to put up some signs. She came to Lancaster three nights earlier with a group of other Columbia University graduate students to volunteer for Obama. I get in the car with her and lock the doors. We all wonder what would have happened if he had been a little more drunk or had it been a night later after Obama had won the election. The Bush administration has all but gutted the Department of Justice civil rights division, which is responsible for the enforcement of civil rights laws that protect people against hate crimes. With about two more months of Bush Administration rule, the likelihood that these crimes will go unprosecuted is high. This retreat from civil rights enforcement has stood as a sort of green light to will-be-haters to do what they will. Lancaster, Ohio is a deeply conservative place. It is a poor place where many of the storefronts in the town’s center are empty. The hospital is the town’s biggest employer. It used to be the glass factory. A 44 year old man with a beard, shoulder length thinning hair and an arm full of fading tattoos of eagles and a boat opened the door to the knocks of an Obama volunteer. He asked which side the knocker was on and when he heard the reply he stepped out onto the porch, lit a cigarette and said “Obama better win. We can’t take it any more. The only reason some of these people aren’t going to vote for him is cause he’s black. I hear it all the time with the guys at work. Thing is that when they lose their jobs and get sick, they’ll wish they had.” The claim that racism is now without embodied racists is a tenuous one everywhere but in Lancaster, like in many places in the country, there is no doubt about it. Now that Obama has been elected, there is a rising anxiety among many that these kinds of explicit personal racial biases will translate into violent randomized hate crimes. On Staten Island, a young Black Muslim man says he was attacked yesterday by a group of white men who made comments about Obama as they beat him with bats. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. The feared rise in anti-Black and Islamophobic hate crimes requires preemptive work; a continuation of the important things that many are already doing to prevent and respond to hate crimes and to change the cultural currents that make them possible. The possibility of a rash of hate crimes is a clear indication that racism in this country is built into the rules, laws, and in this case the neglect of the laws. People are racist and say terrible, violent things but it is the responsibility of government to make sure that violence based on race is curtailed.