KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Two weeks before an election that could install the first black U.S. president, scattered ugly incidents have reflected a deep residue of racism among some segments of white America.
A cardboard likeness of Barack Obama was found strung from fishing wire at a university, the Democratic presidential nominee’s face was depicted on mock food stamps, the body of a black bear was left at another university with Obama posters attached to it.
Though the incidents are sporadic and apparently isolated, they stirred up memories of the violent racial past of a country where segregation and lynchings only ended within the last 50 years.
And some feared that Obama could be a target for people who reject him on racial grounds alone. The Illinois senator leads Republican rival John McCain in polls ahead of the November 4 election and has a big following in many sections of Americans, from liberals to conservatives, black and white, poor and wealthy.
“Many whites feel they are losing their country right before their eyes,” said Mark Potok, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center that monitors hate groups. “What we are seeing at this moment is the beginning of a real backlash.”
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said the incidents were disappointing but he said there were fewer than some had predicted.
“We’ve always acknowledged that race is not something that’s been eradicated from our politics,” said Axelrod. “But we’ve never felt that it would be an insuperable barrier and I don’t think that it will be.”
The latest incident occurred on Monday when the body of bear cub was found on the campus of Western Carolina University in North Carolina. Obama campaign signs were placed around the dead animal’s head. School officials said it was a prank.
Earlier a cardboard likeness of Obama was strung up with fishing wire from a tree at a university in Oregon and an Ohio man hung a figure bearing an Obama sign from a tree in his yard. The man told local media he didn’t want to see an African-American running the country.
Potok said the displays of racism did not appear orchestrated as part of a campaign of racial intimidation, but were rather the acts of angry individuals. Their voices are often heard in radio call-back shows or letters to editors.
Many Americans “see the rise of minority rights, gay rights, women’s rights as a threat to the world they grew up in and that their parents grew up in. They see huge demographic changes,” he said.
“They see jobs disappearing to other countries, and now they see a man who is African American and who will very likely become president of the United States. For some of those people that symbolizes the end of the world as they know it.”
He estimated there were as many as 800 white supremacy or nationalist groups in the United States, with at least 100,000 as “an inner core” of membership and many more on the fringes.
One such group, the League of American Patriots, last month distributed literature about why a “black ruler” would destroy the country.
Michigan State University professor Ronald Hall, writing in his new book “Racism in the 21st Century,” said racism remains one of the most pressing U.S. social problems, though it now takes forms that are more subtle than the lynchings and mob violence seen decades ago in some parts of the country.
Some groups tagged with racist acts deny the charge.
In California, a Republican group said it intended no racial overtone when its October newsletter depicted a fake food stamp bearing a likeness of Obama’s head on a donkey’s body surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon and other images evoking insulting stereotypes about African-Americans.
Some acts have targeted not Obama’s black heritage — his father was Kenyan and his white mother was from Kansas — but the false notion that he is a Muslim.
A derogatory billboard in West Plains, Mo., went up last month showing a caricature of Obama wearing a turban.
“There are a lot of Republicans and McCain supporters who find it hard to believe that a black guy whose middle name is Hussein is going to be the next president of the United States,” said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
David Wolff, a 52-year-old white Pennsylvania voter who plans to cast his ballot for Obama, said he commonly hears racist comments and thinks such sentiments are deeply rooted across America.
“One thing that could speed up the eradication of racism would be to have a charismatic, inspirational, transformational, generational black president,” he said.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Matthew Bigg; Editing by David Storey