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Are Americans Too Racist To Vote For Barack Obama For President?

That's a question that's going to be raised a lot between now and November, not least by Barack Obama, as he did at this Jacksonville fundraiser. "They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"

Then there's the lead story in last Sunday's Washington Post, headlined "3 in 10 Americans Admit to Race Bias." The Web version of the article does not include a link to the questionnaire and responses, so I can't judge what "admit to race bias" means. But the writers also separated respondents according to a "racial sensitivity index." As you might expect, voters with a high sensitivity index tended to vote for Obama, those with a low sensitivity index for John McCain. How do they judge racial sensitivity?

"Putting several measures together into a "racial sensitivity index" reveals that these attitudes have a significant impact on vote preferences, independent of partisan identification. Combining answers to questions about racist feelings, perceptions of discrimination and whether the respondent has a close personal friend of another race into a three-part scale shows the importance of underlying racial attitudes," the article read.

I'm not sure responses to the questions suggested in the above sentence are a good index of racial sensitivity. "Racist feelings": I suppose this includes the one in 10 voters who do not say they would be comfortable with a black president, and I guess that's a reasonably good indicium of "racist feelings." But "perceptions of discrimination"? What "perceptions of discrimination" do you have to have to be racially sensitive? If you believe that racial discrimination in this country is minuscule compared with what it was 50 years ago, are you racially sensitive? I would say you are perceptive--or at least that this is one view a nonracist person could reasonably take. What about having a close personal friend of another race? You'll find it easier to pass this test if you live in a metro area or have a job in a workplace with significant numbers of members of other races. It's harder if you live in Montana. (By the way, is Hispanic another race? The Census Bureau says no, but many respondents may think it is.)

You apparently get a high score on the Post's racial sensitivity index if you give the politically correct answer to a set of questions: You'd be entirely comfortable with a black president, you think racial discrimination remains a terrifically big problem, some of your best friends are black. You could also call it a self-congratulatory index: I'm totally nonracist, most or lots of other Americans are terrible racists, some of my best friends, etc. I'm not surprised that this sensitivity index tends to correlate with willingness to vote for Obama, but I'm not sure that it tells me anything more than that Obama voters are more likely to give politically correct answers than McCain voters. But perhaps the Post has presented the poll questions and responses, and I've simply missed it.

My larger point is that this poll does not shake my belief, as expressed in this blog post, that the percentage of Americans unwilling to vote for Barack Obama because of his race is extremely small. Voters who object to Obama seem to be doing so on the basis of his issue stands or on the basis of characteristics that are specific to him. Reasonable nonracist voters have plenty of room to conclude that he is, in his own words I quoted above, too "young and inexperienced" to be president. About half of all American voters are ready now to vote for Obama, and the very large majority of voters who would not vote for him would vote for Colin Powell. And not all of the rest are acting out of racist motives. That doesn't leave very many irredeemable racists. They're about one tenth the "3 in 10" who, the Post says, "admit to race bias."

By Michael Barone

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