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The South: For Some, Uncertainty Starts at Racial Identity http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/us/politics/15biracial.html
By ADAM NOSSITER
Published: October 14, 2008
MOBILE, Ala. — The McCain campaign’s depiction of Barack Obama as a mysterious “other” with an impenetrable background may not be resonating in the national polls, but it has found a receptive audience with many white Southern voters.
“He’s neither-nor. He’s other. It’s in the Bible. Come as one. Don’t create other breeds.” RICKY THOMPSON, in Mobile, Ala., speaking about Barack Obama.
In interviews here in the Deep South and in Virginia, white voters made it clear that they remain deeply uneasy with Mr. Obama — with his politics, his personality and his biracial background.
Being the son of a white mother and a black father has come to symbolize Mr. Obama’s larger mysteries for many voters. When asked about his background, a substantial number of people interviewed said they believed his racial heritage was unclear, giving them another reason to vote against him.
“He’s neither-nor,” said Ricky Thompson, a pipe fitter who works at a factory north of Mobile, while standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store just north of here. “He’s other. It’s in the Bible. Come as one. Don’t create other breeds.”
Whether Mr. Obama is black, half-black or half-white often seemed to overshadow the question of his exact stand on particular issues, and rough-edged comments on the subject flowed easily even from voters who said race should not be an issue in the campaign. Many voters seemed to have no difficulty criticizing the mixing of the races — and thus the product of such mixtures — even as they indignantly said a candidate’s color held no importance for them.
“I would think of him as I would of another of mixed race,” said Glenn Reynolds, 74, a retired textile worker in Martinsdale, Va., and a former supervisor at a Goodyear plant. “God taught the children of Israel not to intermarry. You should be proud of what you are, and not intermarry.”
Mr. Reynolds, standing outside a Kroger grocery store, described Mr. Obama as a “real charismatic person, in that he’s the type of person you can’t really hate, but you don’t really trust.”
Other voters swept past such ambiguities into old-fashioned racist gibes.
“He’s going to tear up the rose bushes and plant a watermelon patch,” said James Halsey, chuckling, while standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot with fellow workers in the environmental cleanup business. “I just don’t think we’ll ever have a black president.”
There is nothing unusual about mixed-race people in the South, although in decades past there was no ambiguity about the subject. Legally and socially, a person with any black blood was considered black when segregation was the law.
But the historic candidacy of Mr. Obama, who has said he considers himself black, has led some voters in the South to categorize him as neither black nor white. While many voters said that made them uncomfortable, others said they were pleased by Mr. Obama’s lack of connection to African-American politics.
“He doesn’t come from the African-American perspective — he’s not of that tradition,” said Kimi Oaks, a prominent community volunteer in the Mobile area, with apparent approval. Ms. Oaks, along with about 15 others, had gathered after Sunday services at Mobile’s leading Methodist church to discuss the presidential campaign. “He’s not a product of any ghetto,” Ms. Oaks added.
At the same time, however, she vigorously rejected the idea that race would be important in the election, a question met with general head-shaking from those assembled; Ms. Oaks said she was “terribly offended,” as a Southerner, at even being asked about this.
Jim Pagans, a retired software manager, interviewed in a strip mall parking lot in Roanoke, Va., said that while Mr. Obama was “half-Caucasian,” he had the characteristics of blacks.
“But you look at his background, you don’t think of that,” he said. “He’s more intelligent and a smarter person than McCain.”
Bud Rowell, a retired oil field worker interviewed at a Baptist church in Citronelle, Ala., north of Mobile, said he was uncertain about Mr. Obama’s racial identity, and was critical of him for being equivocal and indecisive.
But Mr. Rowell also said that personal experience had made him more sympathetic to biracial people.
“I’ve always been against the blacks,” said Mr. Rowell, who is in his 70s, recalling how he was arrested for throwing firecrackers in the black section of town. But now that he has three biracial grandchildren — “it was really rough on me” — he said he had “found out they were human beings, too.”