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The American presidential election, the quadrennial gathering of citizens for a supposedly common purpose, actually occurs in parallel universes. For one group, the opportunity to ratify one of two choices vetted by the permanent rulers of the land, represents the highest expression of civilization on Earth to date – proof of the inherent goodness of the American project. For another group of Americans, the chance to ratify the same choices is a tentative triumph over the historical crimes of the first group, whose most powerful elements are busily plotting new assaults on the franchise.

“Opposed universes” may be a better term to describe the perceptions of Blacks and whites as revealed in a four-year study of racial divisions under President George W. Bush. Harvard Professors Michael C. Dawson and Lawrence Bobo report that 63% of whites believe that efforts to disenfranchise Blacks in Florida in 2000 were either “not a big problem” (20%), “no problem at all” (18.5%), or a “complete fabrication” of the Democrats (24.5%). This, in answer to questions posed in 2004, as evidence mounted that the election nightmare was about to revisit the state.

Speaking from the real world, 76% of African Americans described the events of 2000 as a “big problem,” 15% as “not a big problem,” and 5% as “no problem at all.” Just 3.7% believe the Democrats made the whole thing up – a sliver of Black folks who must be considered mentally incompetent, since they do not have the excuse of living in the white parallel universe (’s opinion).

Just over a third of whites (37%) recognized that something very serious – “a big problem” – happened in November, 2000. “There’s clearly a divide in the white community,” said Dr. Dawson, a noted social demographer, adding that his conclusions are preliminary and general. “No substantial divide exists in the Black community” over the significance of efforts to disenfranchise African American voters in Florida, he said. What is most troubling is that “there is a significant segment of whites who say, even if you can do something about the disenfranchisement problem, legally, nothing should be done about it.”

Whose world is real?

In the course of questioning Blacks and whites in 2000, 2002 and 2004, Professors Dawson and Bobo have found “deep divisions” between the races that have been “hardening, not converging.” Indeed, “whites and Blacks look at the world extremely differently,” said Dawson. For those Blacks who feared the worst when the Republicans took over the White House, “Bush has fulfilled all their expectations. Black people’s low expectations [of Bush] have been reinforced from 2000 and 2002.”

Nevertheless, said Dawson, “Some optimism has not been beaten out of us.”

Although whites grow increasingly divided among themselves as Bush’s first term nears an end, “African Americans from all economic situations are opposed to the war” and erosion of civil liberties. “The appointment of Attorney General John Ashcroft meant much more to African Americans than Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell,” notes Dawson.

The collective white mind is muddled, at best. “A nebulous fear of America’s place in the world has enabled Bush to lie and have these lies believed…and even when he’s not believed, a significant part of the nation outside of the Black community believes that the future will be better with Bush,” said Dawson. By rights, Bush “should be losing many of the seniors, all the working poor, and even large segments of the middle class.” But he’s not.

The Iraq War has caused the most dramatic movement – and conflicts – in white opinion. Bobo’s and Dawson’s data show “there’s a growing uneasiness about the war.” About one-half of whites “are very uneasy.”

In surveys last year, said Dawson, “large majorities of whites thought it was unpatriotic to protest the war,” while “large majorities of Blacks thought it was right to protest the war if you disagree with it.” This year, “what’s changed among whites is not the question of whether it was right to go to war, but there is more tolerance for protest.” Dawson speculates that “what’s driving that is there is a clear uneasiness about the conduct of the war.”

It is clear to that whites are “uneasy” because the U.S. does not appear to be “winning” the war, which is very different than a moral objection.

African American sentiment against the war is solid, and consistent with historical Black opinion. “With the exception of the first Gulf War,” said Dawson, “African Americans in the late 20th century have been extremely skeptical about American overseas adventures. They are also skeptical about the president who is leading the war. Nobody is going to tell African Americans that it’s unpatriotic to protest.”

Black support for the 1991 Gulf War plummeted almost immediately after the war ended. “This time the skepticism was from the start of the Iraq War, and it did not wane,” Dr. Dawson reports.

Scapegoating TV

Blacks and whites see the world from opposite ends of American Manifest Destiny, which is at the very core of the white national personality, worldview, and sense of self. Like a Black Hole, Manifest Destiny exerts a near-irresistible pull on white Americans, distorting history and even the near-past beyond recognition. Realities are made invisible, even as they unfold in plain sight.

Many politically progressive whites think they have broken free of the delusions of Manifest Destiny, yet remain in its orbit. Howard Zinn, the eminent and prolific radical historian (A People's History of the United States), writing in the November issue of The Progressive, blames “the press and television” for not having “made clear to the public – I mean vividly, dramatically clear – what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq…the deaths and mutilations of Iraqi children.”

“I believe,” wrote Zinn, “that the American people's natural compassion would come to the fore if they truly understood that we are terrorizing other people by our 'war on terror.'" [Emphasis ours.]

The American people’s “natural compassion?” Zinn cites the alleged collective quality as if it were a self-evident fact, when history and contemporary reality tell us that, regarding non-white lives, nothing could be further from the truth. Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The “compassionate” white consensus continues to hold that the “Japs” got a well deserved payback for Pearl Harbor. Most Americans don’t lose a minute of sleep over two to three million dead Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians (1960 - 1975) – unless, of course, they are up late enjoying one of the scores of Hollywood movies in which American actors slaughter villainous Southeast Asians all over again. The “compassionate” parents of these Americans likely sated their bloodlust through hundreds of ritual cinematic re-enactments of the conquest of (similarly villainous) Native Americans. And their grand- and great-grandparents flocked to D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film “classic” Birth of a Nation and his rabidly anti-Mexican blockbuster Martyrs of the Alamo, both released in 1915.

A huge segment of white America revels in seeking out dark enemies and watching them die – preferably by the thousands. This is provable, empirical fact. Yet Zinn, a fully credentialed anti-racist intellectual and activist, insists that these same Americans would rein in their government’s war of terror against Iraqi civilians if they only knew the facts of the carnage.

Actually, these Americans know quite enough, and what they don’t know, they make up, creating or choosing to believe fantasies that always end with more dark dead people littering the landscape. This must be a happy ending, since it is the one the white public repeatedly ratifies (in real life wars) or cheers (in the cinematic kind). How Howard Zinn  and other progressives find general white American compassion at the end of the rainbow is a mystery, presumably based on an article of faith specific to the way white Americans construct reality in their parallel universe.

Zinn’s baseless belief in “the American people's natural compassion” was contradicted by a representative sample of white Americans themselves, even before the Iraq war began.

As reported in February, 2002, Zogby pollsters elicited damning evidence of white disregard for Iraqi lives in the final weeks before the invasion:

”Zogby pollsters asked: Would you support or oppose a war against Iraq if it meant thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties? A solid majority of white men answered in the affirmative, as did more than a third of white women. Only seven percent of African Americans favored a war that would kill thousands.”

Black people watch even more television than whites, but feel no great compulsion to kill thousands of civilians.

We asked Harvard’s Michael Dawson to explain the gross differences in Black-white responses to the 2002 question. He replied:

“The Zogby question posits high civilian casualties as a fact and asks, What are you going to do about it? If you don’t see it as a moral question, then we’re living in a different moral universe. How we decide what’s moral and what’s not moral is done by a different calculus.”

The Iraq War will decide next week’s election. If whites are “uneasy” enough with the war, Kerry will win. But let’s not confuse uneasiness with “the American people's natural compassion.” There ain’t no such animal.



October 28 2004
Issue 111

is published every Thursday.

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