A conservative Midwestern talk radio host recently asked me a question that I'm certain haunts many minds these days: "If Barack Obama doesn't get elected, are black people going to say he lost because he is half-black?"
Sure, I responded. Some black people will presume the worst if the Illinois senator's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination fails. But I hastened to add, that prospect is no reason for whites to avoid voting for him.
Welcome to the subtext of Campaign 2008. In that exchange, you can hear echoes off a canyon-like perception gap that still divides the races. My interviewer sounded frustrated that blacks are still complaining about white racism in the era of Oprah, Condi, Barack and two black coaches in the Super Bowl (Go Bears!)
I, by contrast, tried not to sound just as frustrated by my own suspicions that a significant number of white voters, consciously or unconsciously, will grab any available excuse to avoid giving a black candidate an even break. I hope I'm wrong, but my experience as a black American has conditioned me to be cautious.
In part, that helps to explain Obama's amazing popularity. A lot of Americans hope he can rescue us from doubts about our own country's ability to be fair. That's a lot to ask of any election campaign, but we Americans don't get anywhere by thinking small.
On that score, this election is shaping up to be a big deal with Obama's announcement of a presidential exploratory committee and similar announcements by fellow Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. A diversity trifecta! We can now talk in terms that are more than vague and abstract about whether the country is ready for a black, female or Hispanic president.
Yet, the polls and various news reports reveal a remarkable pessimism among blacks, females and Hispanics about their chances.
For example, a Newsweek poll taken before Christmas found that 86 percent of registered voters would vote for a qualified woman for president and even more, 93 percent, say the same for a qualified African-American. But when asked whether "America is ready to elect a woman president," the "yes" answers dropped to only 55 percent with 7 percent fewer women than men!
That corresponds to other polls, news reports and other anecdotes of women's skepticism about Clinton's prospects and black and Hispanic activists who wonder about Obama's and Richardson's ability to go the distance.
Ironically, even as some women express doubts about Hillary Clinton's win-ability, black political leaders are reluctant to sever ties with Clinton, whose ex-president husband was popular enough for many African-Americans to call him "our first black president."
And voters often think better of their own sense of fairness than that of their neighbors. When Doug Wilder tested the New Hampshire presidential primary waters in 1992, three years after he became Virginia's first elected black governor, a white New Hampshire focus group liked him until they found out he was black, according to Wilder's pollster. They had no personal objection to his race, they said, but they doubted that he would go over with the rest of the state's voters.
Wilder ran into a similar double standard in his 1989 race for governor. His commanding lead in polls over his white opponent, Marshall Coleman, dried up into a single-digit photo finish and he barely won. His was one of many high-profile contests in recent decades in which white voters apparently lied to pollsters rather than reveal their intentions to vote against a black candidate.
When sensitive issues like race and gender are involved, polls don't tell us the truth; they only measure our perceptions of the truth. Our perceptions are colored by our experiences, which helps explain why women or minorities are likely to express less optimism about the fairness of whites or men in the privacy of the voting booth. Yet a lot of whites and a lot of us guys feel pain, too. We bristle at being presumed guilty of racism or sexism before we are given a chance to prove otherwise.
Now that we have the first truly viable black, female and Hispanic candidates entering the presidential horserace, we have our best opportunity to prove our own perceptions right or wrong.
I remain optimistic about the capacity of Americans to be fair to women and minority candidates, even if it takes more than one election to prove it. I'm old enough to remember how pessimistic my Catholic friends were about whether America was ready to elect a Catholic president, just before John F. Kennedy was elected. That's why, as the old saying goes, the only poll that really counts is the one that's held on Election Day.