ELECTION IN FOCUS: Obama candidacy prompts questions about race
Joseph McMahon | Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Though polls show Sen. Barack Obama pulling away from Sen. John McCain in the presidential race, many, including some of Notre Dame’s multicultural leaders, worry that race could still dissuade people from choosing Obama.
“The polls are not really capturing true opinions because of political correctness and social desirability,” Notre Dame political science professor Darren Davis said. “People are saying they will support Barack Obama when they won’t support him in the voting booth.”
Davis said the so-called Bradley effect, named after 1982 California gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, who narrowly lost his election to a white politician despite being ahead in the polls, still exists today. Iris Outlaw, the Multicultural Student Programs and Services director, said the issue remains a major question that will only be answered on Election Day.
“The question is whether people will fall back on that race thing and say, ‘You know, I really can’t pull that lever,'” she said.
Davis said it is not fear of a black president, but rather social pressures that cause many Americans to tell pollsters they will vote for Obama.
“If it’s fear it’s more easily dismissed than social pressure. I think people are saying things to pollsters that they’re not willing to follow up on,” Davis said. “I really think that [given the political and economic circumstances] any other Democratic candidate would be much further ahead.”
Matthew Tipton, the president of the black men’s association Wabruda, said there are many people unwilling to vote for a black president.
“That’s unfortunate in this day and age, but that’s just the truth,” Tipton said.
But at the same time, he added, there are many people voting for Obama solely because he is black.
Tipton said Obama’s identity is much more complex, and combines a variety of unique perspectives unlike previous black politicians such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“People walking down the street may view him as black, but that’s not just a black man. He’s black, he’s
white; he has all these other mixtures and ties. He has a stronger sense of that than anyone else,” Tipton said. “He is America. He is a melting pot.”
Davis said Obama has handled the issue of race well in the campaign, particularly when he was forced to distance himself from his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright after he made several very controversial statements.
“He has so far been able to avoid really intense, racially controversial issues,” Davis said. “In order to be taken seriously as a candidate, given the extent of latent racism that continues to exist, he needed to solidify his base. You have to separate yourself from traditional black politician types who are combative.”
But if Obama does win in November, Outlaw said it represents a major step for the black community, although it does not mean every scar of racism has healed.
“It’s going to be a monumental thing for the black race and for underrepresented people all over the country … but I think that the racial divide is so ingrained in our country that it is going to take a lot more than this to disintegrate that,” she said.
Davis said if Obama is elected, he will face an intense level of scrutiny.
“Usually, presidents are given a honeymoon period when they are first elected. I think that people are going to be more critical of Barack Obama if he’s elected president and he’ll be on a shorter leash,” he said.
Obama represents a major icon for all black people, Tipton said, and although he agrees with Outlaw and Davis that there is still a lot of work to be done, he said Obama’s run for the presidency has helped inspire a generation.
“It gives everybody a sense that they can do anything like become the president of the United States when half a century ago I couldn’t even use the same bathroom or drink out of the same water fountain as a white person,” he said.