Doubt a factor for Democrats' diversity trifecta

January 30, 2007|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- A conservative Midwestern talk-radio host recently asked me a question that I am certain haunts many minds these days: "If Barack Obama doesn't get elected, are black people going to say he lost because he is half-black?"

Sure, I responded. Some black people will presume the worst if the Illinois senator's bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination fails. But, I hastened to add, that prospect is no reason for whites to avoid voting for him.

Welcome to the subtext of Campaign 2008. In that exchange. you can hear echoes of a canyon-like perception gap that still divides the races.

My interviewer sounded frustrated that blacks still are complaining about white racism in the era of Oprah, Condi, Barack and two black coaches in the Super Bowl.

I, by contrast, tried not to sound just as frustrated by my own suspicions that a significant number of white voters, consciously or unconsciously, will grab any available excuse to avoid giving a black candidate an even break. I hope I'm wrong, but my experience as a black American has conditioned me to be cautious.

In part, that helps to explain Mr. Obama's popularity. A lot of Americans hope he can rescue us from doubts about our country's ability to be fair. That's a lot to ask of any election campaign, but we Americans don't get anywhere by thinking small.

On that score, this election is shaping up to be a big deal with Mr. Obama's announcement of a presidential exploratory committee and similar announcements by fellow Democrats Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico - a diversity trifecta! We can now talk in terms that are more than vague and abstract about whether the country is ready for a black, female or Hispanic president.

Yet the polls and various news reports reveal a remarkable pessimism among blacks, women and Hispanics about their chances.

For example, a Newsweek poll taken before Christmas found that 86 percent of registered voters would vote for a "qualified" woman for president and even more, 93 percent, say the same for a "qualified" African-American. But when asked whether "America is ready to elect a woman president," the "yes" answers dropped to only 55 percent - with 7 percent fewer women than men who thought America was ready for such a change.

Voters often think better of their own sense of fairness than that of their neighbors. When L. Douglas Wilder tested the New Hampshire presidential primary waters in 1992, three years after he became Virginia's first elected black governor, a white New Hampshire focus group liked him until they found out he was black, according to Mr. Wilder's pollster. They had no personal objection to his race, members of the focus group said, but they doubted that he would go over with the rest of the state's voters.

When sensitive issues such as race and gender are involved, polls don't tell us the truth, they only measure our perceptions of the truth. Our perceptions are colored by our experiences, which helps to explain why women or minorities are likely to express less optimism about the fairness of whites or men in the privacy of the voting booth. Yet a lot of whites and a lot of us guys feel pain, too. We bristle at being presumed guilty of racism or sexism before we are given a chance to prove otherwise.

Now that we have the first truly viable black, female and Hispanic candidates entering the presidential horse race, we have our best opportunity to prove our perceptions right or wrong.

I remain optimistic about the capacity of Americans to be fair to women and minority candidates, even if it takes more than one election to prove it. I'm old enough to remember how pessimistic my Catholic friends were about whether America was ready to elect a Catholic president, just before John F. Kennedy was elected. That's why, as the old saying goes, the only poll that really counts is the one that's held on Election Day.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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