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Eric Deggans

Eric Deggans

Posted: October 13, 2008 11:26 AM

One Reason Race May Not Derail Obama: The 'Do the Right Thing' Effect


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 wring their hands 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 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 not niggers...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 feel badly about the idea of black people, but those attitudes can change for specific black people they feel they know.

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 onto him -- particularly because he doesn't fit the 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 as today's presidential race has taken on a new dynamic, 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.

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 semi-private settings than they do in their newspaper columns and on TV.

What if some conservatives, turned off by John McCain's increasingly desperate campaign, make a similar choice in the voting booth?

The George Wallace Effect -- 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 the public 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 those making the attacks start looking like the famously pro-segregation governor (doubt my words, check the footage of McCain correcting a supporter who worried he was an Arab -- the kind of thinking his campaign seemed to be encouraging just days before).

It's yet another irony in one of history's most bizarre elections: The black candidate can't really talk about race without being accused of race baiting, and the Republican candidate can't indulge in the typical GOP-style coded race baiting because everyone knows what he's doing.

These are odd positions for me to argue, 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 who were much less cynical about racism argued me down, and seem to be proven right.

Now that the worsening economy is hobbling Republican electoral hopes everywhere, I'm ready to believe that America might be ready to elect its first black president.

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

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