Racial politics hits home|Area residents react to race-based debate

Published 9:27 pm Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Daily News Correspondent

To William O’Pharrow, it’s 1963 all over again.
“It’s no question to me that we are back almost where we started from in the ’60s in trying to get the people to work together, to come together of one accord,” said the longtime local civil-rights activist who lives in Washington.
And, as threats of violence mount against President Barack Obama, O’Pharrow fears for the president’s life.
“We can criticize things, but we don’t have to go to the extreme,” said O’Pharrow, a former president of the Beaufort County chapter of the NAACP.
The Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported in August that Obama was facing 30 death threats per day.
Threats against the president had “increased 400 percent from the 3,000 a year or so under President George W. Bush,” the paper reported.
On Sept. 28, Facebook removed a poll posing the question, “Should Obama be killed?” The poll prompted 730 replies before being taken down, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Secret Service was investigating the incident, the paper said.
And according to an online report from the Montgomery-, Ala., based Southern Poverty Law Center, in the wake of the 2008 election, Obama “received more threats than any previous president-elect.”
The anti-government militia movement, essentially dead since the turn of the century, has been revived in part by extreme-right, anti-Obama reactions, said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the center.
“At least some of these people are motivated by race,” she stated in an interview.
“It’s just like with Kennedy,” O’Pharrow said, referring to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“If this continues, someone will want to be a hero,” he said. “And they can figure that gives them a status. I don’t know how it would help them.”
While other local leaders weren’t willing to go as far as O’Pharrow, they, too, voiced worries about the lowering tone of the nationwide political debate.
Asked for their reaction to signs depicting Obama as a witch doctor — signs toted during some of the recent “tea party” demonstrations — some black officials said that such spectacles raise the old and still-present specter of racism.
“I don’t really have any new concerns,” said Jerry Langley, a Democratic Beaufort County commissioner. “It is what it always has been. You’ve heard that as the more things change, the more they stay the same. And, as far as tolerance of other races, we’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Langley, a lay minister, pointed out that the United States is frequently described as a Christian nation.
“I’ve never seen Jesus treat folks the way that some of these people do,” he said.
Langley said that “98 percent of the African-American community” supported Obama during the past election.
“But it was the white community that pushed him over the top,” he added, nodding toward progress in the direction of racial unity.
Langley attributed some of the criticism being lobbed Obama’s way to the faltering economy and the fight over health-care reform.
But, he indicated, something else motivates a portion of the president’s more racially hostile critics: ignorance.
“They just have a focal point now,” he said.
The race issue is generational, said Alice Mills-Sadler, chairwoman of the Beaufort County Democratic Party.
“We have to teach our children to understand that diversity is something to be embraced and not feared,” she said.
Mills-Sadler said she does not fear racism.
“Racism exists,” she said. “I understand that. I have to deal with it and work around it every day. Does it exist on both sides of the fence? Surely.”
Mills-Sadler spoke of the past year’s election results, which she said showed that many Beaufort County Democrats largely supported Democratic candidates while helping to award the county to Republican John McCain. This suggested that Beaufort County was “still a red county,” she said.
“So, how in the world is it that the president whose coattails they go in on can’t get a majority of votes in our county, but the other candidates did?” she asked.
Racial politics is a distraction from the other problems facing the country, said Archie Harding, secretary of the Beaufort County Board of Elections.
Obama is “doing a lot of good things,” but the media “always finds somebody that disagrees,” Harding said.
To Harding, Obama’s overexposure adds fuel to his critics’ fire.
“A lot of his exposure is bringing on a lot of people who want the media to hear their side of it,” he said. “I think that is one part of the problem, that he is out there in the media daily.”
Harding thinks the president is adequately protected, though, and he asserts that Obama can handle the pressure and get the job done.
Stan Deatherage, a white Republican and a Beaufort County commissioner, said he hadn’t seen the “witch doctor” signs brandished by some protesters.
“I just don’t pay attention to TV anymore,” he said. “I have not seen anything like that on a local level. As far as what’s going on in other places, I basically have not been paying attention.”
If race were being employed in politics, “It would be wrong,” he said.
“I don’t tolerate racism,” Deatherage said.
As for threats against Obama’s life, Deatherage added, “If there are these threats against his life, and they are at a prolific number, I believe that the Secret Service should use all means possible to investigate and prosecute those who are making these threats to the fullest extent of the law. There’s no place for that.”
For his part, O’Pharrow is distressed by what he sees as deepening divisions along partisan lines — and he fears the re-emergence of the racial divide.
“They’re doing it to try to gain votes,” he said. “So, I’m really a little disturbed about what’s going on.”