09/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Race an Issue? Are You Kidding?

How strong is the impulse to denial in America? Remarkably, some continue to wonder whether or not race remains an issue in the presidential election. The answer was written on my windshields last week. I have an Obama sign on my front lawn in suburban Minnesota and as of two days ago I also have two cars marked with the large white letters "KKK."

This winter, a wealthy friend treated my wife to a week at a luxury spa. Two very well heeled women who claimed to be registered Democrats confided that as much as they admired Obama, they were not yet ready to vote for a black man.

In a masterful op-ed in today's New York Times, Bob Herbert reminded the Polyannas that there are white voters all over the country with the idea of color stuck in their craw. Having rehearsed some stories, Herbert concludes:

"After many years of watching black candidates run for public office, and paying especially close attention to this year's Democratic primary race, I've developed my own (very arbitrary) rule of thumb regarding the polls in this election:

Take at least two to three points off of Senator Obama's poll numbers, and assume a substantial edge for Senator McCain in the breakdown of the undecided vote.

Using that formula, Barack Obama is behind in the national election right now."

The issue is more complicated than people coming straight out about their biases. Racial consciousness is a very murky business. A few weeks ago, Bill Clinton clenched his teeth, squinched his eyes, and insisted "I'm not a racist." Americans of the Caucasian stripe seem to imagine that we can just roll our eyes back, look around our psyches and decide whether or not we have any of the racist poison in our system. While we may know whether or not we have ever used the N word, it is much more difficult to discern whether or not we have been infected by stereotypes and the old power arrangements.

I have always been a stalwart supporter of civil rights and on paper at least have no grounds for accusing myself of racism. And yet as I wrote in an earlier Huffington Post blog, I know that I have not entirely escaped my history and environment.

As I noted, when I began teaching college I was more inclined to offer extra help to African American students than to their white counterparts. As a coach I was probably more solicitous to black athletes. On a number of occasions, I have caught myself in heightened states of alertness when a black man walked by me at night. Does this make me a racist? No, but it should give me humble pause to understand that I, no less than other baby boomers, am not immune to the brain- tarnishing representations of race to which my generation has been subject.

As I have crossed the fifty-yard line in life I am a less narcissistic and have come to understand that my feelings are not unique. If I have a twinge of a sentiment, I know others have it as well and many in a much higher degree.

Last night, as I listened to Michelle Obama tell her poignant story with perfect timing, my wife handed me a tissue. Yet for all of the heat in my cheeks there was also a nasty part of me that was a little envious. How come she and Obama could do what they did and not I?

Now, I have won the employment lottery and have a wonderful job teaching at a superb college. But if things were otherwise, as they are for so many Americans, I could certainly imagine that tincture of animus entering the voter's booth and blossoming into a perhaps subliminal, "I'll show them." This is what Bob Herbert is afraid of, and right fully so.