Virginia State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, told a conservative talk radio show Friday that racism is a subtle factor used against President Obama by his Republican opponent Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race and that there needs to be a "national discussion on racial issues."
Lucas told conservative talk-show host John Fredericks, who hosts "The John Fredericks Show" on WHKT 1650 AM, that the GOP candidate is "speaking to a segment of the population who does not like to see people other than a white man in the White House or any other elected position."
The comments have spread nationally with Fredericks, who spent part of 2011 as the editorial page editor for the Daily Press, appearing on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" to discuss the interview.
Lucas was speaking with Fredericks as a surrogate for the Obama campaign. Fredericks regularly has state and national surrogates for Obama on his show.
Lucas, who has long been outspoken on the topic of race and politics, told Fredericks "it is time that we face the reality that we need to have a national discussion on racial issues."
Lucas did not respond to requests for comment on her radio interview.
Michael Clemons, a political science professor at Old Dominion University who teaches classes on African-American politics, and Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Institute for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, agree with Lucas that a larger dialogue on race is needed.
Clemons said that while "marked improvements" have been made since the civil-rights era and with the election of Obama, "code words" such as "welfare" and "food stamps" are used in connection with the president.
"When we begin to talk about food stamps and welfare, for certain segments of the American public it does mean African-Americans," Clemons said.
Clemons said he doubted discussions on race and ethnicity could be had in the "rough and tumble" context of campaigns, but national talks could be held using empirical data, such as that from the 2010 U.S. Census that show higher unemployment rates, higher infant mortality, lower incomes and lower education levels for blacks compared to whites and point to institutional racism.
"We see racial disparities in the practice of the customs of this society," Clemons said. "That's what we don't want to confront."
Kidd said Lucas' comments reduced "the potential for any serious discussion about race" because they caused a knee-jerk reaction in the electorate.
Kidd said the last time he saw a "serious, thoughtful" discussion on these issues by a campaign was Robert F. Kennedy's attempt to win the Democratic nomination for president in 1968.
"It could happen," Kidd said. "It's just a difficult discussion to have. It's made more difficult when people like Louise Lucas make off-the-cuff, sort of knee-jerk comments that they make, because it causes everyone to run to their corners and say 'I'm not moving.'"
The Obama campaign has not offered a response to Lucas' comments, but Fredericks said he has been assured by the campaign that a "high-level" official will appear on his show to discuss the issue.
The Romney campaign also declined to comment, but pointed to a statement issued from a spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who as a surrogate for Romney is traveling to Iowa Thursday to campaign for the GOP candidate.
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin issued an email statement saying McDonnell felt the comments were "divisive and flat wrong."
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