The painful task of measuring racism

A small percentage of the population won't vote for a black presidential candidate, but we don't know how small.

By Steve Benen

Published April 22, 2008 3:07PM (EDT)

The Politico's Roger Simon has a new item that raises a depressing point.

I was talking the other day to a prominent Republican who asked me what I thought John McCain's strongest issues would be in the general election.

Lower taxes and the argument he will be better able to protect America from its enemies, I said.

Republicans have a pretty good track record with those two.

The Republican shook his head. "You're missing the most important one," he said. "Race. McCain runs against Barack Obama and the race vote is worth maybe 15 percent to McCain."

The man I was talking to is not a racist; he was just stating what he believes to be a fact: There is a percentage of the American electorate who will simply not vote for a black person no matter what his qualities or qualifications.

The question is just how big that percentage is, and whether it includes anyone who might otherwise be willing to vote for a Democratic candidate. Simon noted an Associated Press poll from earlier this month that found that "about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black for president."

That, of course, is a ridiculously large number of people who are willing to admit to a pollster that they judge people based on the color of their skin. It's compounded by the suspicion that there are plenty more who are also motivated by race, but are too embarrassed to admit it out loud while participating in a poll.

It's my hope that we're talking about lunatics who wouldn't vote for a Democrat anyway, and may not even be registered. In this sense, knuckle-draggers wouldn't necessarily be in a position to influence the election's outcome.

I'm also curious to see if the duration of the campaign has any effect. People who might have initially hesitated to support an African-American candidate (or, for that matter, a woman candidate) have the chance to get over the identity questions and consider the people running on their merits. In other words, Obama gets the chance to win people over, by virtue of a lengthy process.

But to think that 15 percent of the United States is more racist than rational, more bigoted than decent, is almost too painful to believe.

Steve Benen

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