For the first time in history, an African American looks close to winning the presidency. Throughout his campaign, Sen. Barack Obama has faced a blunt question: Can he win enough white voters to win? It's a question that's as much about race as it is about electability.
A recent study out of Stanford University suggests that racial prejudice is eroding as much as 6 percentage points from Senator Obama's support. One commentator has even suggested that white racism would be the only explanation for an Obama loss this November.
But there's another facet to this story – and it could prove to be equally decisive: the reluctance of some black voters to vote for Obama.
A New York Times poll taken this past July showed that 6 percent of black respondents say that they wouldn't vote for a black candidate (presumably Obama). Just 5 percent of white respondents said the same.
What's behind this black resistance to Obama?
More than a few blacks grumble that Obama will be blamed for the financial mess, which may only get worse on his watch. If he gets blamed for it, the thinking goes, somehow it will blow back on blacks due to the infuriating racial double standard in which the failing of one is regarded as a failing for all blacks.
Then there's the age-old rap that blacks who don't support other blacks for political office or anything else are filled with self-loathing and color phobia – in reverse. This racial self-hate supposedly rears its ugly head every time a black tries to get ahead.
And there's also the persistent fear that if Obama wins, he will be in perpetual danger of being assassinated.
But none of this totally explains the trepidation and reluctance of some blacks to back Obama.
Here's the point that's often missed: Blacks aren't and never have been of one mind on anything, nor should they be. Blacks are as varied and diverse in their social and political views as any other demographic, and that includes embracing conservative social and religious positions.
This was plainly evident in the presidential battle in Ohio and Florida in 2004. Bush racked up double digit vote percentages among black voters. He did it by shrewdly appealing to the hard opposition of many blacks to abortion, gay marriage, and their support of school vouchers.
Polls have also shown that a significant number of blacks oppose welfare, back the death penalty, and support black anti-affirmative crusader Ward Connerly's state initiatives banning affirmative action programs in public hiring. To many socially conservative blacks, Obama is simply a too-liberal, tax-and-spend-Democrat for their tastes.
But while conservatives are still a very distinct minority of black voters, it doesn't mean that all blacks will instinctively back a black candidate. Nowhere was that more apparent than the 2006 midterm elections.
Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, pro football great Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele – all Republicans – banked heavily on getting black voter support. In fact, none of the three black Republicans came anywhere close to getting a majority of the black vote. This was not an aberration.
Blacks have even backed white Democratic incumbents against black challengers in Democratic primaries. The issue for them was the real and perceived notion that the incumbent had done and would continue to do a better job in improving education, getting increased funding for job programs, and neighborhood services.
It's true that blacks have ritually given Democratic presidential candidates 80 to 90 percent of their vote since the 1960s, when Democrats embraced civil rights. But it's also true that a small percentage of black voters have backed white Republican presidential candidates even though the GOP turned a cold shoulder toward them for decades. To be sure, the small percent of blacks who say they would not vote for a black candidate reflect a number of lingering fears that need to be addressed.
It's worth remembering though that the overwhelming majority of black voters are thrilled to be supporting Obama.
When Obama needed a surge in the South Carolina primary in January, Oprah delivered. She made an impassioned pitch for Obama to mostly black audiences in South Carolina and they delivered. Thousands more turned out there than did in the 2004 Democratic primary and they gave him more than 90 percent of their vote. That type of support continued through the primaries.
But the few black who won't support Obama are proof that blacks, like anyone else, make political choices based on many factors – and color isn't always one of them.