Race and the election: This is depressing if accurate…

I know I don’t blog about pure politics much, but it’s the weekend, I’m too tired to do anything heavy-duty about medicine or science, and this depressed me.

As much as I’d like to delude myself that things have changed, it turns out that they haven’t changed nearly as much as I’d like to think, as this poll demonstrates:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” ”violent” or responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points.

Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He’s an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation’s oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.

More than a third of all white Democrats and independents — voters Obama can’t win the White House without — agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t have such views.


It’s true that race isn’t the only reason that Obama the race is so close. People reported doubts about whether Obama is ready to be President, doubts I myself have expressed in the form of wondering if he’s “ready for prime time,” but it’s depressing as hell to see this conclusion from the poll:

Three in 10 of those Democrats who don’t trust Obama’s change-making credentials say they plan to vote for McCain.

Still, the effects of whites’ racial views are apparent in the polling.

Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.

But in an election without precedent, it’s hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play.

True enough, but the evidence is suggestive:

Among white Democrats, Clinton supporters were nearly twice as likely as Obama backers to say at least one negative adjective described blacks well, a finding that suggests many of her supporters in the primaries — particularly whites with high school education or less — were motivated in part by racial attitudes.

The unfortunate implication of this poll is that racism, although clearly decreased from 40 or 50 years ago, when casually flinging about the N-word was not considered nearly as offensive (or in some parts of the country it wasn’t offensive at all), is alive and well and that it may well be the deciding factor in the election. I don’t know how accurate this poll is or if the effect of racism is as great as it suggests, but even so enough other lines of evidence suggest that race will be at least some factor; it’s the magnitude of its influence that is argued. It’s not just racism, either. It’s prejudice against Muslims, and that prejudice isn’t just limited to the uneducated. I’ll tell you a little story.

Earlier this year, I was first-assisting for my partner for a case on a Saturday morning because it happened to have to be done that day for a clinical trial (the surgery had to be timed carefully after a dose of drug) and there were no surgery residents available to help him because that Saturday also happened to be on the day when residents take a yearly required examination. After the patient was asleep and the surgical site was being prepped but before we started the case, for some reason the conversation turned to politics. The anesthesiologist started going on and on about how Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he took his oath of office with his hand on the Koran, all standard stuff that’s easily debunked. She really believed it, too. She didn’t believe me when I pointed out that that none of it was true, and she was particularly annoyed when I made a comment along the lines of, “It’s not true, but so what if it were true? Why should it even matter if Obama were a Muslim? It doesn’t matter to me any more than his race.” Unfortunately, I could not at the time remember the details of the origin of that particular rumor. In any case, the argument got fairly heated, and I had to just let it drop because the case was about to start and the patient and his operation had to become my first priorities.

Still, I left the hospital that day stunned that one of my colleagues could have so easily bought into such misinformation, but more disturbing was that it mattered so much to her. Even a rumor that Obama was a Muslim made her utterly opposed to him and even afraid of him.

As I said before, I’m underwhelmed by Barack Obama. He gives a great speech, sure, but his experience is mighty thin for President. I know that my saying so will annoy some readers, but so be it. On the other hand, a man I used to admire and almost certainly would have voted for had I had the opportunity back in 2000, John McCain, has sold his soul to the religious right and thrown away all the things about him that I used to admire in his unbridled ambition to become President–to the point where he’s reduced to making ridiculous charges of sexism over comments like “you can put lipstick on a pig.” It doesn’t get much more pathetic than that. (Or maybe it does, and we’re yet to see it.) Moreover, after observing McCain and seeing him discuss how he makes so many decisions “from his gut,” I realize that what we need in this country is less thinking from the gut and more thinking with the mind in our leadership. We’ve had eight years of a President who famously makes decisions based on his “gut instincts,” and look where it’s gotten us. John McCain, by choosing an utterly unqualified candidate for his running mate who also appears to value decisiveness far more, has also shown that his gut instincts could have disastrous consequences if he were to die or become incapacitated in office. All of this, plus the utter disaster that has been the Bush Administration, has driven me towards supporting, albeit not particularly enthusiastically, Barack Obama.

I was born in the era of the civil rights movement. I was five years old when riots plunged my hometown of Detroit into chaos. Forty years later, it’s depressing as hell that race might be a major contributing factor why a Presidential candidate might lose in November. The only bright spot is that Obama has enormous support among young people, which suggests that race will matter less and less in the future.

Or at least so I hope.