As the countdown to the historic election in the United
States continues, race remains a factor in what some observers are calling the
most interesting presidential race in US history. Democratic Senator Barack
Obama is attempting to defeat Republican Senator John McCain to become
America’s first black president. But some analysts say history is against him
in some respects. They specifically refer to the so-called ‘Bradley Effect’ - a
phenomenon in US politics whereby some white Americans are seemingly unable to
cast their ballots for a black person.
In certain respects, says
Prof. Sean Jacobs, he’s “irritated” by the media focus on Obama’s “blackness.”
After all, he points out, the candidate himself hardly ever identifies himself
as a black person…. And, with the son of a Kenyan economist having being raised
by a white mother from Kansas and having a “very white upbringing,” there are
some who question whether Obama is "truly black."
Jacobs, a South African,
is African Studies professor at the University of Michigan, and resides in New
York. He’s also a leading member of a collective of African academics in the
United States, the Concerned Africa Scholars group.
Jacobs acknowledges that
some of the emphasis on Obama’s skin-color is “understandable,” given America’s
history of racial inequality. While he sees “definite progress” in the US since
the civil rights struggle began in earnest more than 50 years ago, he says
there’s still a tendency in some parts of the US to “stereotype” and “blame
poor black people for everything that’s wrong in America,” like crime.
He sees great disparity in race relations in rural, or small
town, America, and urban, or big city, America. Jacob’s has lived and traveled
in the US for more than a decade, and says he’s noticed how some clerks in
small towns in the country still tend to follow black people around in stores,
apparently convinced that they’ll steal “simply because they’re black.”
Jacobs says this kind of discrimination generally doesn’t
happen in US cities anymore, where there seems to be much more tolerance for
Jacobs is convinced that Obama’s candidacy has significantly
altered the nature of American politics.
“In the past…. there was always a question as to whether
white people, when they would go into a polling booth when no one is watching,
whether they would actually vote for a black candidate” even when they’d
previously affirmed to pollsters that they would.
But, says Jacobs, Obama’s
victory over Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential
nomination, as well as the Illinois senator’s recent surge in popularity,
indicates that increasing numbers of Americans no longer see a person’s race as
a factor in deciding whether or not he or she will be a good leader.
Yet Obama supporters remain concerned that his race will
ultimately cost him the White House. A recent survey, as reported in the New
York Times, found that “racial bias” would cost Obama six percentage points
in the final outcome, probably resulting in his defeat.
Andrew Kohut, the president of Pew Research Center, told
the newspaper, “How much we are under-representing people who are intolerant
and therefore unlikely to vote for Obama is an open question. I suspect not a
great deal, but maybe some. And ‘maybe some’ could be crucial in a tight
Jacobs also refers to what has become known as the ‘Bradley
effect’ in US politics, named after the case of black Los Angeles mayor Tom
Bradley. In 1982, Bradley ran for the governorship of California. Polls
predicted he’d win by a wide margin… But he lost. Analysts subsequently
concluded that white voters had lied to pollsters about their support for an African-American,
and had ultimately been unwilling to vote for a black person.
Jacobs adds, “Similarly, there’s the case of Douglas Wilder.
He was the first black governor in the United States (having served as governor
of Virginia from 1990 to 1994). (In 1989) he was way ahead in the polls, but
finally he won by (only) a couple of thousand votes.”
But he says many US pollsters feel that the ‘Bradley Effect’
has actually been in decline since the mid-1990s. Their conclusions are
supported by a new study by Harvard University postdoctoral fellow, Daniel
Hopkins, which found that black people competing for political office after
1996 had actually performed about three percentage points better than polls had
Some analysts have referred to this as the ‘reverse Bradley
effect’ – meaning that many white voters who’ve previously indicated they won’t
vote for a black candidate, actually do so within the privacy of the polling
Jacobs maintains that Obama has a “strong chance” to become
president. But, like many others, he has his doubts, saying, “we’ll have to
wait and see” whether all the support that’s been pledged to the Democrat
Politics of personality; racism
Jacobs feels that Obama’s “statesmanlike” demeanor, “character”
and “attitude” could prove more crucial in securing the votes of his
compatriots come November 4, than his policy positions.
“In America, politics is about personality. People don’t
elect their politicians here based on policies. They hardly discuss policy.
They think it’s boring. What they want to discuss is character,” he says.
“A lot of the reason why I think Obama’s poll numbers are up
is because people are asking, ‘Does he look statesmanlike?’ And they’re
deciding, ‘Yes, he does,’ when compared to John McCain. (Obama) seems more at
ease with the facts. Whether they’re listening to what he’s saying – that’s not
important, it’s about how he carries himself in public.”
Jacobs says he’s heard some Americans saying that “making
Obama president would lead to white people (losing) some of their fears and
prejudices about black Americans. On the other hand, some say that black
Americans would see their society as more friendly or receptive to their
historical grievances, or to the poverty, the inequality, in the United States”
with a black person occupying the Oval Office.
But Jacobs isn’t convinced that having Obama in the White
House will necessarily result in improved race relations in America.
“The problem is the American president usually governs in
the center (and) will sort of keep very moderate and will end up not doing much
to change the status quo.”
Jacobs argues that no matter what happens in the election,
Obama alone cannot alone be tasked with ending racial prejudice in the US.
“I think the problem of racism in America is a much more
larger project than simply having a black president.”