Whether or not, as a white woman living in middle America, I am as qualified as others to address the role race plays in the 2012 presidential election, as a writer who wants to participate in the national conversation around this year’s White House bid, I feel compelled to share my recent, racially implicated electoral experience. Perhaps being a white woman who supports our country’s first African-American president in and of itself qualifies me to comment. But, as a blogger representing the upcoming PBS documentary Race 2012, I share so I can encourage you to do the same. I hope you will watch this election season special on October 16th (check local listings) and, regardless of your party affiliation, join the conversation, sharing your own observations and insights in the comments below.
I lived in Haiti during its most recent presidential election, the first since an earthquake leveled most of Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands.
That experience changed forever the way I think about the electoral process and much I assumed about fairness and equality growing up in a place like the US.
Though my childhood was far from average by American standards, I was raised assuming a number of things about the importance of voting and the role my voice plays in the electoral process:
- I assumed elections were fair.
- I assumed everyone had equal access to the voting booth.
- I assumed all Americans had the same opportunities to get ahead—to be educated—to feed their children—to live in a home that was safe and affordable.
I was wrong about each of these. I was naïve. None of these are guaranteed anywhere in the world—not even in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Indeed, Haiti changed all of that for me.
You see, Haiti has, for more than a century, been the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
But on January 12, 2010, an earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, killing at least a quarter million, injuring several hundred thousand more, and leaving more than a million and a half homeless. However, a year after the earthquake, when it came time for Haitians to elect their next president, a million were living in tents, and the nation was in the throes of cholera epidemic.
It’s no wonder that many there felt excluded from the political process. The earthquake destroyed voter registration records denying some the right to vote when the first round of elections rolled around, and supporters of Jude Celestine, the candidate that then president Preval had hand-picked to succeed him, were accused of stuffing ballot boxes on November 28, 2010. Because of this, and the exclusion of Aristide’s Lavalas party from participating in the election, Port-au-Prince erupted in chaos as the disenfranchised took to the streets and forced the country’s only international airport to close.
Even in the usually quiet Port-au-Prince suburb of Petion-ville where I lived, roads were barricaded with burning tires. Hundreds of protesters rioted past our house, as UN helicopters circled over-head. Gun-shots and explosions rang out across the city— wrenching me from peaceful sleep. It was literally a rude awakening.
In Haiti there is a massive divide between rich and poor. But there are also racial factors influencing both this economic reality and the political process. The elite, who control 95% of the nation’s wealth, are generally mulatto or of mixed European-African decent, while the poor and destitute, who have next to nothing, are usually darker skinned. Few dispute the fact that the privileged minority in Haiti, those who believe themselves superior at least in part because of their lighter skin, manipulate elections to benefit themselves—keeping the vast majority of Haitians in dire poverty and advancing their own economic interests.
So speaking only from my personal experience—as someone who witnessed first-hand what happened recently in Haiti— and who, as a result, approaches this year’s US election with a newly deepened cynicism, I don’t claim there are exact parallels between the presidential race in Haiti and the one here in the US. I don’t even claim the racial issues are the same.
However, having observed what I did in Haiti, I listen with suspicion when I hear Mitt Romney dismissing 47% of the American population as takers and claiming he might have a better chance of being elected were he of Mexican descent. I’m equally suspicious of voter registration laws that make it more difficult for the poor, many of whom are elderly or members of ethnic minorities, work harder to cast their vote than middle class Americans, who have the means to own a car and thus the driver’s license needed to participate freely and fully in the political process.
I don’t know the answers. I am only now realizing, in a new way, the degree to which these disparities still divide our country. Since living in Haiti, I’m more fully aware that the playing field in our country is far from level—that we approach a slippery slope if we elect a candidate who believes he’d be more easily elected were he a member of any ethnic minority.
I believe it’s important that we, as privileged members of this country’s majority, re-examine our assumptions—that we cast a critical eye on any belief we cling to out of blindness or naiveté. Not all white Americans are any more ignorant than all ethnic minorities are poor. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a second look.
Given the seemingly insurmountable series of obstacles Haiti has faced since the 2010 earthquake (and the US, for that matter, has faced since 2001)—I’m reminded of the Haitian proverb, “dye mon, gen mon,” which roughly translates into English as “beyond the mountains, more mountains.”
In Port-au-Prince the expression images topographically the never-ending struggle of the Haitian people, outlining a belief shared by many, that conquering one challenge only brings the next one into focus—a belief mapped in the furrowed brows of many who fight the good fight one day, only to see the sun rise the following morning on the summit of the next.
Whether we want to admit it or not, the poor, the racially marginalized in the US, face challenges whose origins are reminiscent of Haiti’s—challenges rooted in a heritage of slavery and oppression. In Haiti they play out in more exaggerated forms than they do here at home, but that exaggeration makes it easier to see what might be more casually overlooked in the US.
Haiti offers an important lesson—one we in the US, especially those of us who are white and privileged, might be wise to heed, especially on November 6th.
As the mountains that circle Port-au-Prince brighten on election-day in the US, those of us who drive to the polls in leather-seated luxury, might do well to remember our privilege and as we cast our votes in “mcMansioned” suburbs, ask ourselves how our ballots might impact those facing mountains upon mountains here at home.
And when the polls close on the evening of November 6th, I hope the hills from Appalachia to the Rockies will be alive with the sounds of opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race, regardless of national origin or party affiliation.
Racial minorities in America have surmounted huge obstacles to injustice in the past half century, but as they say in Haiti—”Byen prè pa rive.” Very close is not there yet.
What racial challenges do you believe the US has yet to conquer? Whether or not you are a member of an ethnic minority in the US, how does the outcome of this election impact your personal “mountains upon mountains?” If you do not live in the US, what are the relationships between race and politics in your country?
And don’t forget to tune in on October 16th to watch the PBS documentary “Race 2012: A Conversation about Race and Politics in America” (check local listings). I hope you will like Race 2012 on Facebook, visit the documentary’s website, and encourage others to join you in supporting this conversation about race and politics in the US. Please follow on Twitter and tweet an announcement about this important election season special.
Thanks to my friend Monica Medina of “Monica’s Tangled Web” for organizing this blogging campaign and asking me to contribute this piece.