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A big issue in this race: race

This is supposed to be the Democrats' year of destiny. Bush is hobbling out of office, the economy is in the toilet, voters are sick of the war and the party's wunderkind candidate is raking in money hand over fist.

So why is the presidential race a statistical dead heat? The pundits have offered a host of reasons, but one in particular deserves more exploration: racism.

Barack Obama's candidacy has shed some light on the extremes of racism in America — how much has dissipated (especially among younger people) and how much remains.

According to a July New York Times/CBS News poll, when whites were asked whether they would be willing to vote for a black candidate, 5 percent confessed that they would not. That's not so bad, right? But wait.

The pollsters then rephrased the question to get a more accurate portrait of the sentiment. They asked the same whites if most of the people they knew would vote for a black candidate. Nineteen percent said that those they knew would not. Depending on how many people they know and how well they know them, this universe of voters could be substantial. That's bad.

Welcome to the murky world of modern racism, where most of the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to measure. As Obama gently put it in his race speech, today's racial "resentments aren't always expressed in polite company." However, they can be — and possibly will be — expressed in the privacy of the voting booth.

If the percentage of white voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for a black candidate were only 15 percent, that would be more than all black voters combined. (Coincidentally, it also would be more than all voters under 24 years old.) That amounts to a racial advantage for John McCain.

And this sentiment stretched across ideological lines. Just as many white independents as Republicans said that most of the people they knew would not vote for a black candidate, and white Democrats were not far behind. Also, remember that during the Democratic primaries, up to 20 percent of white voters in some states said that the race of the candidate was important to them. Few of those people voted for the black guy.

Some might say that turnabout is fair play, citing the fact that 89 percent of blacks say they plan to vote for Obama. That level of support represents a racial advantage for him, too, right? Not necessarily. Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic in the general election anyway. According to CNN exit polls John Kerry got 88 percent of the black vote in 2004.

Think racism isn't a major factor in this election? Think again.

A big issue in this race: race 08/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 9:03pm]
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