Is being black hurting Barack Obama in his run for President?
Well, something is hurting him, because he’s not where he should be in the polls. Given the unpopularity of Bush and the state of the economy, a Democratic candidate should have a much larger lead than Obama’s current spread of 3% over John McCain in the Real Clear Politics average of all polls.
But Obama’s problem with race goes much deeper than that small slice of the public that’s adamantly against a black President. Obama, as a black man, is particularly vulnerable to a challenge to his qualifications.
Unqualified blacks getting into high positions reminds some white voters of the worst stereotypes of affirmative action.
Even the mere mention of affirmative action is so powerful that it can activate white prejudice. In a national split sample of white voters, half of the sample was asked their opinion about affirmative action prior to being asked a short battery of standard questions about prejudice. The other half was assessed on prejudice first. Whites who merely heard the phrase “affirmative action” first were more likely than other whites to think that blacks were violent, less intelligent and lazy.
This is why the McCain ads that focus on Obama’s short résumé are so brilliant. While only a small portion of the white electorate is unwilling to vote for a qualified black candidate, a much larger percentage of whites resent it when they feel blacks are getting promoted faster because of race.
If the Republicans can subtly portray Obama as an affirmative-action nominee, McCain could well be our next President.
Still, ads about qualifications hurt Obama more than they would a white candidate, because they remind some white voters of affirmative action. That’s simply how white opinion works on this issue.