Josh Marshall, perusing the latest WaPo/ABC News poll that shows both Dems beating McCain, notes that there might be a substantial "social undesirability bias" preventing poll respondents from expressing genuine apprehension about voting for black man for president. The poll found that "Only three in 10 said they were "entirely comfortable" with the prospect of a 72-year-old new president." Marshall:
But basically, many people won't say they'd be uncomfortable with a black president because they know they're not supposed to think like that, even if they do. On the contrary, there's no comparable social stigma associated with thinking that about someone past retirement age.
I think that's probably true (and true about sexism as well), but people wouldn't be voting for just a generic "black" or "woman" president, they'd be voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The polls are an imperfect measurement of how prejudice works, not just because people don't always tell the truth, but because, even viewed through the lens of race and sex, who that person is and how they are perceived still matters a great deal. When we like someone, we see them as a person, but when we dislike someone, race becomes a fundamental element of that dislike. Last month Nicholas Kristof cited an interesting study on the topic:
For example, one experiment found it easy for whites to admire African-American doctors; they just mentally categorized them as “doctors” rather than as “blacks.” Meanwhile, whites categorize black doctors whom they dislike as “blacks.”
The question isn't really whether racism or sexism will be a problem for the nominee, as much as it is whether he or she can get voters to see him or her not as a "black person" or a "woman," but as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. How they succeed at that will ultimately determine how important race or gender bias are. That's not right, and it's indicative of how powerful those forces remain in our society, but it's how it is.
No, Obama and Clinton won't carry the "hang that darky," or "iron my shirt" votes. But history suggests that intolerance can be circumvented by the talents of an exceptional person.
The real problem is that most of us aren't exceptional, and we shouldn't have to be.