1. Archive


These days, a lot of white folks are asking me about how race is going to affect the presidential election.

It's a question I've often found amusing. After all, most white people these days know enough to avoid expressing racially insensitive ideas around people of color. White people probably know better than I what choice other white folks will make once the voting booth curtains close.

But even as some Obama supporters worry over polls showing that race remains a negative factor for the first Democratic presidential candidate who calls himself a black man - the Associated Press reported last month more than one-third of white Democrats and independents agreed with at least one negative adjective applied to black people - I wondered about a few trends which might make that issue less obvious than you would think.

Ask the white person nearest you whether these ideas make any sense.

The Do the Right Thing Effect. I named this for the moment in Spike Lee's legendary film where he confronts a racist pizzeria operator with the observation that the guy makes awful comments about black people but loves Prince, Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.

"It's different," John Turturro's Pino Frangione insists. "Magic, Eddie, Prince are notn-----s. ... They're not really black. They're black but they're not really black. They're more than black. To me, it's different."

And that's a dynamic no one can measure.

It's been my experience as the occasional object of racism that there are some folks who dislike their generalized stereotypes of black people. But those attitudes can change for specific black people they feel they know, especially celebrities.

So there are probably some Democratic voters who don't see Obama as a typical black person, and don't transfer those negative, generic feelings on to him - particularly because he doesn't fit easy stereotypes, even of black politicians. And as long as Obama has been running for president, there are many voters who didn't really get to know him until he clinched the Democratic nomination in July.

It's something people of color face every day: You're a symbol to the world until you get famous enough that you're not.

The Reverse Bradley Effect. Okay, this one is a little less likely, I admit. But the Bradley Effect is a dynamic named for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black politician who went into a tough election for governor doing well in the polls but lost when the votes were counted.

The lesson some learned: People told pollsters they were voting Bradley just so they wouldn't look racist.

But 20 years later, I wonder if a different impulse won't emerge. We are, after all, in an election season where Republicans and even Democrats like Geraldine Ferraro insist Obama is getting widespread support mostly because of his race.

(Ferraro, in fact, said Obama was "lucky" to be a black man in this race. Who would have thought, even a year ago, that anyone could say that about a black presidential candidate named Barack Hussein Obama with a straight face?)

So maybe there are some folks planning to vote for Obama who don't want to admit it.

Already, we see conservatives such as Peggy Noonan and David Brooks saying much harsher things about GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in semiprivate settings than they do in their newspaper columns and on TV. Last week, Christopher Buckley resigned his column from the National Review, the magazine his father William F. Buckley founded, after endorsing Obama on a Web site. (See essay on this page.)

What if some conservatives, turned off by John McCain's campaign but afraid of blowback, make a similar choice in the voting booth?

The Code Word Boomerang. Like Hillary Clinton before him, Republican John McCain has tried to reference Obama's difference without mentioning race, emphasizing his loose connections to "domestic terrorist" William Ayers and repeatedly asking "Who is the real Barack Obama?" as if two years on the campaign trail hadn't provided a few answers.

But McCain is discovering what Clinton also learned the hard way - the real point of those kinds of attacks is obvious in the post-Willie Horton era, and it hurts in two ways.

It makes people who are not racist but uneasy about Obama feel as if they are falling in league with racists, and it brings enough racists out of the woodwork that suddenly those making the attacks don't look so good (if you doubt my words, check the footage of McCain correcting a supporter who worried Obama was an Arab - the ultimate expression of post-9/11 fear his campaign seemed to stoke days before).

It's yet another irony in one of history's most unusual elections: The black candidate can't really talk about race without accusations of race baiting, and the Republican candidate can't indulge old school code words because they are too obvious.

These are odd positions for me, I admit. Back when Obama first announced his candidacy, I, along with many other black folks, had a hard time believing a black candidate for president could be much more than a trivia question.

But white friends much less cynical about racism argued me down, and may be proven right.

As the worsening economy hobbles Republican electoral hopes, I'm ready to believe America might elect its first black president.

The only real question left, is whether enough white folks feel the same.