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.
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.
That’s come to be debunked as a current theory, in part because in more-recent elections involving African-Americans the polls have been spot on. Most pollsters have adjusted their methodology to be able to ferret out racial biases that could affect their accuracy.
There are others reasons as well. If someone doesn’t want to vote for Obama because of his race, say some political analysts, they can simply point to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who made harsh anti-American statements in some of his sermons. Then there’s the Obama grass-roots political machine, which has registered thousands of new voters. In fact, some longtime politicians believe the polls could actually underestimate Obama’s support.
Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus likes to joke that he’s “one of Barack’s core constituencies: a white guy from the Deep South who was an elected official.” Mr. Mabus notes that just prior to the Mississippi primary election in March, the race between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was predicted to be very close. The secretary of state estimated that 150,000 people would turn out to vote in the primary. On primary day, more than 450,000 Democrats showed up, and Obama won with 61 percent.
“The polls are missing how many new voters we’re registering – how many people who haven’t voted in a while are getting back interested in the process,” says Mabus. “I think they’re missing the enthusiasm and organizational work. The Obama campaign has the best organization I’ve ever seen. They’re everywhere.”
That has spurred optimism that the US may in fact elect its first African-American president. That’s something Jackie Rivet-River never thought she’d see.
“In my lifetime, I never dreamed that I’d see [an African-American elected president],” says Ms. Rivet-River, an older documentary filmmaker out walking her dog by Lake Michigan in Chicago. “Race isn’t an issue for me, one way or the other.” She believes that in the end Obama will win by a significant margin.
Christy Gozdik, who’s lived in Chicago for 30 years and just lost her job, says race isn’t an issue for her either. But she says she does know at least one person for whom it is. “She won’t admit it, but I know that’s the reason she’s voting for McCain,” says Ms. Gozdik. “I hate to say it, but the racist factor is there.”
Still, Gozdik says people’s concerns about the economy and the unpopularity of the current Republican administration may make race less of a factor this year in particular. “People may be more willing to vote for a minority now because the country is doing so badly,” she says, noting that she also knows a number of people who she might have thought would balk at supporting a black candidate but plan to vote for Obama.
“The economy is really aggravating everybody,” says Lamar Caskin, a 20-something black man, who’s busy mopping the market’s bathroom stalls. He almost lost his job recently when he couldn’t find gasoline to get to work during the regional shortage that struck the area after hurricanes Gustav and Ike. As a result, he supports Obama’s economic plan, which relies on energy independence and tax breaks for the middle class.
“I don’t think race is a big deal in this election,” says Mr. Caskin. “I hope it’s not an issue, but I don’t see it and I don’t feel it, and I honestly never thought about it.”
But Josh Pincus, a Chicago architect who supports Obama, says he was recently shocked at a conversation in which several acquaintances used racial epithets while talking about the election and praised putting up McCain lawn signs as being similar to advocating the KKK. “I was blown away,” he says, while watching his young daughter at a Chicago playground. “I just had to walk away.”
Experts on race say strains of overt racism still exist, but not as powerfully as just a few decades ago.
“[Those with racist views] clearly are a minority now and they’re not dispositive of anything – there was a time when they were,” says David Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, whose research focuses on issues of particular concern to African-Americans and other people of color. “They can rant and rave all they want, but time has passed them by.”
Despite the academic studies and record numbers of Americans, white and black, who’ve contributed to the Obama campaign, concerns remain that racism could undermine Obama’s candidacy.
Sonia Whittle is a Mexican-American married to a white Republican man. She often picks up the scuttlebutt on the streets of Forest Park, a largely black and Hispanic neighborhood in Georgia. Because of her Hispanic appearance, whites and blacks often think she doesn’t speak English, so she overhears racial prejudices from all three populations. In her circles, she says, race overshadows all other issues at the moment.
“I hear this [racial] stuff every day – it’s real,” she says. “I think a lot of whites are afraid of what’s going to happen if Obama gets elected. Everybody’s real confused right now.”
Ms. Whittle does not think the country is ready for an African-American president. But with the polls continuing to give Obama a solid lead, others disagree strongly. And they’re worried about what could happen if Obama doesn’t win on Nov. 4.
“I think there’ll be chaos,” says Jimmy Gray, a fruit vendor and pastor in Georgia who is black. “There are too many people ready for a new country and a new vision, and you’d see the 50 percent of people who support Obama rebelling against any other government you put in there.”
For many veterans of the civil rights movement, like former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, much more is at stake than an election.
“The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States would be the greatest thing for racial reconciliation and racial understanding that we could have happen in this country,” says Governor Winter. “And I think it would mean so much to us as a leader in the world as well as to be able to point to him as president of the United States.”