CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia continues to receive negative national scrutiny regarding our racial attitudes. Many from outside our state have three notions about us: 1) there are few, if any, African-Americans here; 2) West Virginia is brimming with racial bigots; and 3) there is a visceral hatred of our first African-American president based upon his race.
First, the perception regarding the number of West Virginian African-Americans is amplified by an extraordinary lack of awareness regarding our state's demographics. While we have a low rate of diversity statewide, the population centers and many other areas in southern West Virginia have African-American populations that are reflective of the national average. African-American culture and presence has been a significant part of our history.
The second perception, that West Virginia has more than its share of bigots, is not a complete representation of our state. This view is based, in part, on the lack of educational attainment for many of our residents. A recent study revealed that the college-educated often retain racial prejudice but are more sophisticated in how they express their views. While West Virginia has some of the warmest and caring people in the nation, lower levels of education and sophistication contribute to the perception of racial intolerance.
Unfortunately, the third perception, regarding the state's animosity toward our president, is difficult to explain outside of racial considerations. Since West Virginia has never elected an African-American to a statewide or congressional office, residents have little experience with an African-American in political authority. During the 2008 West Virginia Democratic primary, President Obama lost by 40 percentage points to Sen. Hillary Clinton who had almost identical policy positions to Obama.
Sen. John McCain defeated President Obama by double-digits in the general election, but every poll showed Clinton would defeat McCain in West Virginia, often by double digits. The recent Democratic primary, where a jailed felon received 40 percent of the vote against our president, drives home the point.
After these elections, not one of our political leaders addressed race or attempted to guide meaningful discussions on how to improve our racial profile. This was a perfect opportunity for our political and thought leaders to guide a dialogue on racial attitudes. The silence has been deafening. Later, when some state leaders opposed the president on energy and other policy considerations, much of the predisposed populace equated disagreement with racial animus.
Perhaps leadership is why the perception of West Virginia as a racist state is so much greater now than in the past. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard University, recently utilized private Google searches to ascertain racial attitudes. Based upon this data he found that West Virginia had the most racially charged Internet search rate and, from 2008 on, "Obama" was West Virginian's most common search terms in racially tinged queries.
This has not always been our narrative. While Sen. Robert C. Byrd aligned himself with southern Dixiecrats during the 1950's and 60's, our other Senator, Jennings Randolph, was a statesman with a strong civil and human rights record. During that time he voted for the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, was the sponsor of the legislation leading to the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age to 18, was a co-sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and championed rights for the disabled.
Having a thoughtful political leader like Sen. Randolph provided a rebuttal to the perception that Byrd was representing a racist state. Since the election of 2008, the national opinion of West Virginia has been damaged in the area of race without meaningful rebuttal.
Although Sen. Jay Rockefeller and, significantly, the late Sen. Byrd endorsed President Obama, the recent decision to shun the Democratic National Convention by Sen. Joe Manchin, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Rep. Nick Rahall adds another component to this negative racial narrative.
A political party's national convention is where the party's direction for the next term is debated and validated. There is a duty for these Democratic officials to attend, and anything less is political malfeasance and an affront to thoughtful voters. Once at the convention they can raise disagreements with the administration, to a national audience, regarding energy policy, budgetary matters or any other areas of concern while showing the nation that West Virginia will honor our first African-American president.
Instead, by staying away from their party's convention, these elected officials are yielding to the lowest elements of our culture and adding to the negative perception regarding West Virginia and race. People of goodwill should demand that these three public servants attend as a way to challenge the negative perception of our state. History and voters will remember pusillanimous politicians.
Fryson, a lawyer and pastor, is a Gazette contributing columnist.