An African-American candidate with left-of-center views and less than four years in the Senate appears poised to win the presidential election over a seasoned white war hero who was until lately a media darling.
And Barack Obama's favorability rating (53 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable) in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll was "the highest for a presidential candidate running for a first term in the last 28 years" of that poll.
There is much to celebrate in this, even for supporters of John McCain. Win or lose, Obama has proved (if more proof were needed) that although many blacks are still mired in poverty -- a legacy of our racist history -- contemporary white racism has been driven to the fringes and is no longer a serious impediment to black advancement.
So, is the racial-grievance crowd celebrating? Hardly. Instead, the obsessive search for ever-more-elusive evidence of widespread white racism and sneaky appeals to it goes on.
The McCain-Palin campaign has certainly showed an ugly side as its fortunes have faded. Examples include Sarah Palin's recent suggestion that small towns were "the pro-America areas of this great nation," for which she has had to apologize; her earlier claim that Obama had been "palling around with terrorists"; and McCain's warnings about Obama bringing "socialism" and "welfare." The mood of some lowlifes at McCain-Palin rallies has turned uglier still.
But the complaint that this shows that McCain and Palin are peddling "racist garbage" in code, as Harold Meyerson (to pick one example) wrote in the October 22 Washington Post, seems contrived.
The ugliest race-tinged comment by any prominent leader during this campaign came not from a Republican but from Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat whom McCain has repeatedly called a personal hero for enduring merciless beatings by racist white cops while leading civil-rights marches in the 1960s. Lewis accused McCain and Palin on October 11 of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division," likening them to George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who created an "atmosphere of hate [in which] four little girls were killed."
Lewis should be ashamed of himself. It is precisely to avoid stirring up racial division that McCain has passed up what could be one of his most powerful and legitimate issues: Obama's long and close former relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a leftist demagogue given to anti-American, anti-white, hate-filled ravings.
A New York Times editorial on October 7 accused McCain and Palin of "race-baiting and xenophobia." The evidence? Well, the editorial cited Palin's "palling around with terrorists" charge. But that was a reference to a white man, the unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers. The editorial also said that "a man yelled 'kill him'" while Palin was denouncing Ayers and Obama at a Florida rally. But the original Washington Post report on which this account was based did not say that the man "yelled." It also seemed to suggest that the comment was directed at Ayers, not Obama. And Secret Service agents monitoring the crowd found no evidence that anyone had said "kill him" at all.
The search for evidence of racism among white voters has been equally tireless and almost as tendentious. Some are undeniably racist, of course. But not all that many. So when a CBS News/New York Times poll found in July that only 5 percent of whites said they would not vote for a black man -- which doesn't sound so bad -- much was made of the fact that 19 percent said that most other people they know would not.
An Associated Press/Yahoo poll in September found that one-third of whites harbor negative attitudes about blacks. That's a lot. But less attention was given to the fact that 58 percent of those with "negative attitudes" said that they would vote for Obama.
Did the "negative attitudes" reflect real racial animus? Or the poll's use of leading questions? Consider the poll's finding that "given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said that the word 'violent' strongly applied." Sounds ugly. But the racial stereotype was loaded into the question. And the answers might have had something to do with the statistical fact that blacks commit seven times as many homicides (and several times as many other violent crimes) per capita as whites.
Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg perceived veiled racism when 14 percent of whites in another poll said yes when asked whether they feared Obama would "favor blacks over whites." But Obama has long supported overt racial affirmative-action preferences that do favor blacks over whites, in employment and college admissions.
For all of the focus on white racism, it seems quite possible that more people may vote for than against Obama because of his race. Campaign manager David Plouffe has told reporters that Obama will win at least 95 percent of the black vote, up from the 88 percent who backed John Kerry in 2004, and Obama is doing better with white women and white working-class men than either Kerry or Al Gore.
A lot of white voters see Obama's race as a plus. In my case, the main reason (as I said in my January 12 column) is that electing an African-American who preaches education and opportunity rather than grievance and reparations would provide the best imaginable beacon of hope for black children who have been misled by bad leaders into thinking that America is still too racist to give them a chance at success.
Racism-spotters also make much of the "Bradley effect," a term coined when Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, lost the 1982 California governor's race to George Deukmejian after exit polls had predicted he would win. This is typically seen as proof of white voters lying to pollsters to hide their racism. A more plausible hypothesis might be that they opposed the black candidate on the merits but feared being falsely perceived as racist by the pollsters.
A still more plausible hypothesis is that the Bradley effect is a myth. So said Blair Levin, who worked in Bradley's campaign, in an October 20 New York Times op-ed. Bradley lost, Levin explained, not because of race but "because an unpopular gun control initiative and an aggressive Republican absentee-ballot program generated hundreds of thousands of Republican votes no pollster anticipated." Academic studies have suggested the same. And a study of 133 elections by Daniel Hopkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, found that -- although most black candidates fared worse than polls had predicted from 1989 until 1996 -- most did better than predicted from 1996 through 2006.
What should the lesson be if Obama loses? "Racism is the only reason McCain might beat him," Weisberg asserted in August. "If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race."
This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. A chorus of such commentary after an Obama defeat would reinforce in the minds of black children the pernicious myth that there's no point studying or working hard, because the white man will hold them down no matter how good they are.
This is not to deny that an Obama loss could plausibly be attributed to race-based voting, given all of the reasons one would expect him to win: the financial crisis and recession; two unpopular wars; Republican disarray; the erratic McCain campaign; and Obama's first-rate intellect, calm temperament, gigantic fundraising advantage, and big lead in the polls.
But to paint an arguably race-tipped Obama loss as confirming that America is incurably racist would be perverse. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, explained why in a Washington Post commentary:
"If Obama loses, I personally will feel disappointed, frustrated, hurt. I'll conclude that a fabulous opportunity has been lost. I'll believe that American voters have made a huge mistake. And I'll think that an important ingredient of their error is racial prejudice....
"But I hope that soon thereafter I'll find solace and encouragement in contemplating this unprecedented development: A major political party nominated a black man for the highest office in the land, and that man waged an intelligent, brave campaign in which many millions of Americans of all races enthusiastically supported an African-American standard-bearer.... He has reached the edge of the pinnacle. And shown that we can stand atop it."
Beyond that, Obama himself will still be a good bet to stand atop the pinnacle sooner or later even if he loses this year.
This article appears in the October 25, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.