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The White House race

Pic courtesy of Tricia Yeoh

ONE question hovering over the minds of Americans as they enter the final leg of the 2008 presidential election campaign is whether race will influence voters. If it does not, then the battle between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain should be purely about their policy stands, experiences, and abilities. It should have nothing to do with the fact that one man is black and the other, white. If this is the case, the US would have successfully displayed leadership in its championing of equal civil rights.

But how realistic is this? If racism fundamentally still exists, then what is the use of the constitution (in the US or Malaysia) in legislating morality, really? This is, of course, if we consider racism a serious moral issue.

Gallup Poll’s daily tracking continues to show Obama having a significant lead over McCain in its 23 to 25 Oct polling. Obama leads 52% to 43%. Some of the more sophisticated electoral projections show that Obama will win 52.3% of the popular vote. Based on the current pre-election day voter turnout and sentiment, it certainly does seem like Obama will be a shoo-in president come the morning of 5 Nov.

The Bradley Effect

Critics would then cite the “Bradley Effect” as potentially disrupting these positive figures. Named after the non-white Tom Bradley, this refers to the 1982 race for the office of governor in California, which saw Bradley lose to white candidate George Deukmejian despite enjoying popular poll ratings. Some predict the same might happen to Obama.

The effect thus refers to voters’ willingness to proclaim publicly their leanings towards a black candidate to avoid criticism of racial bias. However, this may be mere reluctance to give an accurate polling answer, and voters then privately make the opposite decision at the polling booth.

Political pundits are arguing presently whether or not the Bradley Effect will come into play in the 2008 presidential elections, even though some rubbish it as ridiculous. After all, has America not overcome the silly race obstacle, such that African Americans have equal social and economic status in the country today?

Obama gets more support from people of colour
(Public domain)

It is one thing to debate about the effect that a candidate’s race has on voters. However, projections can be more readily conducted linking voters’ ethnicities with their preferred candidate. The most recent poll, conducted between 13 and 19 Oct, shows that 61% of the Hispanics and 91% of the non-Hispanic blacks prefer Obama. Non-Hispanic whites are more evenly split between Obama and McCain, with McCain enjoying a slight majority. Indeed, the undercurrent of racism still seeps through much of the American landscape.

A unique Stanford University poll conducted with the Associated Press (AP) and Yahoo! News found that one-third of white Democrats view African Americans negatively, calling them “lazy” and “violent”. These same pollsters said blacks are responsible for their own troubles. Thus, if there was no white racial prejudice, it was suggested that Obama’s support would be as much as six percentage points higher than his opponent’s.

Many Malaysian politicians would absolutely love these studies. “Just look at America!” they would cry. “The bastion of rights, democracy and independence apparently, but they still discriminate against a black man over a white man.” As if pointing at racist tendencies in another country gives us licence to justify the same in our own.

Just because such perceptions continue to exist, this does not mean they are right or fair. Further, it follows that because these perceptions exist, it is even more urgent that there should be laws ensuring they do not materialise into any form of racist action. What sorts of laws would guarantee this? Anti-discrimination laws, which exist in several other countries (which I have written about previously), would provide a reasonable method of exercising punitive action against those who behave improperly.

The debate still exists in Malaysia about whether or not racism should be legislated against. Again, the bigger question is: Should morality be legislated, if we consider racism an issue of morality? If we assume that humanity is predisposed towards ethnocentrism in its present state — resulting in intolerant behaviour and ultimately racial discrimination — then the answer is yes.

Back to race

Will McCain benefit from the Bradley Effect?
(Public domain)

Back to the race (pun not intended) for the US president, the key difference is that although racist sentiments and prejudices may still exist widely, there are particular laws and regulations that outlaw the practice of racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act, borne out of the Civil Rights War that ended in 1865, specifically prohibits discrimination based on race or colour, amongst other features.

Not legislating laws that specifically deter people from acting in racially discriminatory ways is dangerous. Ironically, Article 8 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution provides for equality before the law. But it is rarely quoted even by politicians who are the apparent national leaders of the future.

As the Obama-McCain fight nears its end, it may be a timely reminder to Americans (even Democrats) that their former President Abraham Lincoln said: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man or the other man, this race and that race, and the other race being inferior and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all these things and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”

These words laid some of the foundations of the country’s current Civil Rights Act that effectively mitigates acts of racism. Outlaw discrimination for one generation, and the next generation (or the one after) will behave accordingly because it then becomes a cultural norm.

I wonder when a Malaysian leader might say something similar. (Not exactly of course, since Malaysians should never imitate “those Westerners”.)


Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She believes that without anti-discrimination laws, it is highly improbable that Malaysia will ever achieve a state of genuine unity. Meanwhile, Obama leads the race! She is blogging her eyewitness accounts of the 2008 US presidential election campaign at

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2 Responses to “The White House race”

  1. A. Jamil says:

    I’ve never heard of a Civil Rights War that ended in 1865. I have heard of the American Civil War (1861-1865). That war is sometimes referred to as the War Between the States and even the War of Northern Aggression. And the war was about slavery and states’ rights. Civil Rights? Not so much.

  2. Raja says:

    With regard to the proposal for Umno Youth leadership candidates, Khairy had proposed a debate. But the Minister of Higher Education said it was not suitable to conduct such debates because Malaysia is a multiracial country. I would have thought any minister, especially one who oversees higher education, would have a worldview of some worth.

    Malaysia is a Land of Immigrants – just like the USA.

    Mahathir’s father who spoke Malayalam came from Kerala, Southern India.

    Badawi’s grandfather, Ha Su-chiang (also known as Hassan), was a Chinese Muslim who came from Sanya in Hainan, Southern China.

    Syed Hamid Albar’s father is of Hadhrami Arab descent.

    Khir Toyo’s father, Joyo Erodikromo, was an immigrant from Java , Indonesia.

    And even the current ‘racist’ Ahmad Ismail who went into hiding came from Aceh, Sumatra.

    All these guys claim they are Malays when they are NOT. And have the cheek to call us squatters and immigrants in Malaysia?

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