By Mike Hixenbaugh
Only a few days remain until Election Day, a gray-haired widow noted, leaning over the untreated wood railing of her front porch in rural Nash County. Sarah Ashby has been following the presidential race closely, she said, nodding to affirm the statement.
And with each day that passes, her concerns deepen.
“If America puts him in as president, we deserve what we get,” Ashby said, shouting over the rumble of a passing pick-up truck. “I think he’s a Muslim. The media knows he’s a Muslim-Arab, and they won’t do anything. They’re brainwashed.”
Ashby, 64, was expressing her beliefs about the Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who she says is an African-born Muslim who uses campaign contributions to support Islamic terrorists.
All of that, of course, is false.
A broken and winding dirt path leads through the mostly wooded Riverside Mobile Home Park where Ashby lives, less than two miles outside the town of Spring Hope. A few faded Confederate flags, discarded appliances and a miniature Dale Earnhardt statue line the trail through the secluded trailer community.
“People are just ignorant,” Ashby said. “People don’t know who this guy is.”
Most people have long known Obama is a multiracial – half white, half black – Christian, born in Hawaii of a Kansan mother and Kenyan father. After more than 20 months of campaigning, the national media has revealed much about the man.
But Ashby and many others like her don’t believe any of that.
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sociology professor Andrew Perrin studies the impacts of culture and environment on a person’s political views. He said the widespread delusion about Obama’s background is a symptom of deeply embedded racial discomfort. Some people are untrusting of cultures different from their own, he said, leaving them susceptible to manipulation.
“This type of thinking is the result of a pretty cynical set of attempts to use a new kind of niche marketing and niche media – everything from Fox News to the viral characteristics of the Internet – to prey on people’s racism to get them to believe things that are not plausible about Senator Obama,” Perrin said. “We have learned that false beliefs tend to propagate when there are large communications networks that go unchecked.”
Extreme views don’t represent the average Republican, Nash County GOP spokesperson Robbie Davis said, noting that John McCain’s campaign has worked to correct supporters who hold unfounded prejudices against Obama.
Davis, like many Republicans, disagrees with Obama on taxes and the war in Iraq, but otherwise respects the U.S. senator for Illinois, he said.
Still, there are many U.S. residents who harbor bizarre misconceptions. Performing a Google search of Obama’s name reveals countless Web sites suggesting he is the anti-Christ, a terrorist or a Muslim.
The same could have been said about a number of liberal bloggers who falsely reported Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s teen daughter was the mother of Palin’s newborn. Other untrue Internet gossip has accused McCain of being a war criminal who intentionally bombed women and children in Vietnam.
But none of the outlandish rumors, it seems, have gained as much traction throughout rural Eastern North Carolina as the ones questioning Obama’s background.
“Senator Obama comes from an unusual racial background,” Perrin said. “His race makes it easier for many people to accept these sorts of statements because people are, in a way, looking for reasons to distrust him.”
During the last six months, as Obama’s candidacy has built momentum, the Telegram has fielded several phone calls from Twin Counties residents fearful an Obama presidency would be an international disaster.
“His name is a clue that he wants to bomb America with our own weapons once he’s president,” one Rocky Mount woman said recently, emphasizing the “bom” portion of Obama’s last name.
Another local man called demanding the media stop referring to Obama as the first black presidential candidate from a major political party. Obama, the man argued, is mostly Egyptian, part Asian and part white.
“Besides, Thomas Jefferson was technically the first black president,” the caller said.
Brenda High called the newspaper last week, upset after failing to get through to reporters at Fox News. High said she refused to believe Obama was leaving the campaign trail this weekend to visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii.
“He’s going to Hawaii to get a phony birth certificate because he was born in Albania,” High said. “He’s Albanian. I’m certain he probably already has a plant in the register of deeds office so he can get the birth certificate.”
High called back later, correcting herself. Obama, she said, actually was born in Kenya.
Obama disclosed a copy of his birth certificate months ago verifying his U.S. birth, a requirement to be president. A digital copy of the birth certificate is posted on a portion of the Obama campaign Web site dedicated to debunking rumors. Regardless, several conservative media personalities like Rush Limbaugh are questioning its validity.
Mark Weber, 48, shook his head before he sat to eat breakfast with his 12-year-old son at a Spring Hope diner last week.
“I don’t know what he believes,” Weber said of Obama. “I don’t know anything about him. That’s the problem. His ideas are that of a socialist, and he’s friends with a terrorist. I know he’s not a Christian; I heard Muslim, but I don’t know.”
Weber had just finished casting his ballot at an early voting site. He took his son along to “teach him about our civic duty to vote,” he said. When asked what he thought of a potential Obama presidency, the boy’s eyes widened.
“I would be scared,” the boy said, before expressing his fears that Obama would let the terrorists win the war in Iraq. “They could attack us here.”
Ashby reported a similar feeling, stepping away from her porch railing to adjust the single potted plant resting on her front stoop.
“I don’t know,” said Ashby, who gets her news through talk radio and a few friends who read a lot on the Internet. “I heard it’s a conspiracy to destroy us from inside our own government. He hates white people, I know that. And all these blacks are voting for him because they think he’s black, but he’s not even completely black. He’s 77 percent Arabic and the rest black.”
Davis, who for years has volunteered with the Nash County Republicans, said he pines for the days when politicians talked about their own campaigns and when voters cast ballots based on the issues. A lot of people still do that, he said.
But still, Davis continued, “Some people are way off base with their views. It’s really unfortunate.”
(c) 2008 Cox Newspapers, Inc. – Rocky Mount Telegram