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 diversity.
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 election.”
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 forecast.
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 booth.
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 actually materializes.
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.”