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Race underlies this race

Sometimes it’s shockingly explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but it’s always present: There’s an undeniable racial undertone to this year’s US presidential contest between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.

Part of it is structural: Most Americans are no longer white. This year, for the first time, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and Native Americans together outnumber Caucasian Americans. And this trend will only become more pronounced. Hispanic Americans, the largest “minority”, have birth rates above replacement, while whites do not. Scan the crowds that attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week and the Republican Convention in Tampa last week, and then contrast them. One quickly concludes that the Democratic Party reflects America’s diverse and dynamic demographic profile, whereas the Republican Party is more of a “whites only” enclave. The Democratic Party is increasingly the “majority minority party”, in the memorable phrase used here, and the Republic Party the diminished “majority”, which has now too become a “minority”.

Yes, there are noteworthy exceptions. The Republicans showcased upcoming members such as Senator Marco Rubio from Florida (a Cuban American) and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina (she’s South Asian), as well as former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (who is, of course, African-American). But its core support is largely white, predominantly male, increasingly from the South, and less and less urban. Present trends are not encouraging for the longer-term future of the Republican Party.

Not unless Republicans are able to broaden their attractiveness. The party is trying hard to woo Latino voters and not lose most of them forever to the Democratic Party. Appeals are being made to Hispanics’ Catholicism and social conservatism, plus their small business orientation. Yet the Republicans’ restrictive, narrow platform on illegal immigration — and Mitt Romney’s notion that undocumented illegal immigrants would “self deport” if life were tougher for them — does not bode well.

The Republican Party is presently perceived as being in thrall to extremists, with moderates regarded as heretics. Many women too feel unwelcome in the party due to its conservative positions on women’s reproductive rights. A nasty incident at the Republican Convention in which two participants (who were promptly expelled) threw peanuts at an African-American CNN camerawoman, saying this is “how we feed animals”, was also not helpful public relations.

In recent months, Republican governors and Republican-dominated state legislatures have been trying to erect barriers to voting. These efforts at suppressing the vote, sometimes in battleground or swing states such as Ohio, include passage of voter identification laws, reduction or elimination of early voting, and gerrymandering. In theory, “voter ID” laws aim to prevent voter fraud. However, vote fraud per se is highly unusual in the United States. Many allege these concerns about fraud are straw men aimed at preventing Hispanics, African-Americans, and other minorities — who are less likely to have government-issued identification and more likely to vote Democratic — from voting. Limiting early voting prevents people who work regular business hours from voting on the weekend before an election. Again, this restriction is seen as targeting the poor and minorities, groups that tend to vote Democratic.

Some of these laws may end up being heard by the US Supreme Court before the presidential elections. In terms of the Voting Rights Act, there must be federal approval of any changes to voting in states with a history of franchise discrimination. The justice department has rejected voter ID laws in states such as South Carolina and Texas.

It’s a challenging time for the United States. The shifts in the global environment, with China’s economic ascendance, and America’s diminishing political and economic dominance, make some Americans look for a scapegoat. And so, for some, particularly blue-collar white working class Americans, Barack Obama has become the perfect symbol of all that is “wrong in America”. Some of the personal-and racial-animus directed at him is noteworthy and appalling.

A woman from Maine interviewed on National Public Radio last week revealed that she “just didn’t like how (Obama) looked” and that he “didn’t look presidential”. Such racially-based opinions are often masked with generic prefaces such as “he’s such a nice guy” or “don’t get me wrong, he’s very likeable” or “he’s a great family man” before the person launches into why Obama should not be re-elected.

Reacting to Clint Eastwood’s off-colour dialogue with an empty chair at the Republic Convention, Obama commented, “One thing about being president or running for president — if you’re easily offended, you should probably choose another profession”. He could just as well have said this about the racial slurs being passed his way.

For Romney to win the presidency for the Republican Party, he will have to obtain the votes of a huge majority of white voters and a portion of Latinos. Given the demographic challenges the Republican Party faces, competing fairly might not seem a winning strategy. Hence the resort to “other”, less savoury tactics designed to suppress democratic voting.

Micheline Tusenius is a South African, presently but temporarily living in Washington DC, with her American husband and their two children. They last lived in Johannesburg in 2010, but visit South Africa often. Visit Micheline’s blog, Watching in Washington, here.