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Surging Obama campaign suggests US racism on the wane

Prejudice lingers, but there’s evidence it’s becoming a thing of the past.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2008

A man listened to Sen. Barack Obama’s speech Aug. 27 at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mr. Obama could become the nation’s first African-American president.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Oxford, Miss.

The issue of race has been intertwined with the history of the United States since its inception. It has brought out the nation’s best and its worst – from the courage of the civil rights workers to the murderous terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Barack Obama’s meteoric rise already warrants a chapter of its own, and his mixed-race heritage has already played a pivotal role in this year’s election. It helped the Illinois senator win key primaries in Southern states like South Carolina. But it also cost him some white support in some struggling industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to polls.

As Election Day approaches, Senator Obama’s lead over Republican rival Sen. John McCain is widening into double digits. Recent polls also show 91 percent of Americans say they are comfortable with the idea of having an African-American president. That contrasts with only 50 percent who say they’re comfortable with having a 72-year-old become president, as Senator McCain would be were he to win.

That is leading some political analysts to conclude that voters’ concerns about the economy and the country’s direction have trumped the race issue, at least for now.

”It’s an astonishing and wonderful thing that so many Americans are finding common ground,” says Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey. “It could be a moment of such historical consequence and tremendous racial meaning ... but Barack Obama winning the US presidency does not translate into the end of racial stereotyping or the end of racial inequality.”

In interviews with Americans across the country during the campaign, the vast majority agree with Chicagoan Gwendolyn Johnson that race “shouldn’t be a factor.” But many, like Benny Walls in Oxford, Miss., also believe it’s inevitable that skin color will play a role.

“Race is part of our fabric, it’s always going to be there,” he says. ”The question is how we handle it.”

For at least four decades now, it’s been socially unacceptable to be overtly racist. But stereotypes persist, often because of lack of exposure to people of different races. That’s helped create what’s come to be known as the “Bradley Effect.”

Named for former African-American Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley, who lost his bid for governor of California in 1982 despite some polls that showed him ahead, it’s come to describe the phenomenon where some white voters tell pollsters they’ll vote for an African-American but pull the lever for his or her opponent in the privacy of the polling booth.

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