Obama helped things even more. The firm message in his signature slogan of hope and change, campaign literature, TV ads, rallies, in pitches to contributors, his core of advisors, and major endorsers was that the Obama presidential campaign and an Obama presidency would be broad, non-racial and issues driven. Anything else would have instantly stirred horrifying visions to many of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. His candidacy would have been DOA.
But McCain and Obama’s best efforts to make race a non issue in the campaign would have fallen short without the sea change shift in public attitudes. The decade since the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the urban riots, has been a period of relative racial peace in America. During that time polls consistently showed that more whites than ever are genuinely convinced that America is a color-blind society, equal opportunity is a reality, and blacks and whites if not exactly attaining complete social and economic equality, are closer than ever to that goal. Though the figures on income, education and health care still show a colossal gap between poor blacks and whites, the perception nonetheless is that racism is an ugly and nasty byproduct of a long by-gone past.
The passage by huge margins of anti-affirmative action measures in California, Michigan, and Washington, was not simply a case of whites engaging in racial denial or a cover for hidden bias. Many white voters backed the initiatives because they honestly believed that color should never be in the equation in hiring and education, and that race is divisive.
It’s is easy to see why they believe that. "Whites only" signs and redneck Southern cops unleashing police dogs, turning fire hoses on and beating hapless black demonstrators have long been forgotten. Americans turn on their TVs and see legions of black newscasters and talk show hosts, topped by TV's richest and most popular celebrity, Oprah Winfrey.
They see mega-rich black entertainers and athletes pampered and fawned over by a doting media and an adoring public. They see TV commercials that picture blacks living in trendy integrated suburban homes, sending their kids to integrated schools and driving expensive cars. They see blacks such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor Condoleezza Rice in high-profile policy-making positions in the Bush administration. They see dozens of blacks in Congress, many more in state legislatures and city halls. They see blacks heading corporations and universities. And those blacks who incessantly scream racism about their plight are roundly reviled for feeding racial paranoia.
There is even some talk that the so-called Bradley Effect, the penchant for whites to lie to pollsters about their true racial feelings and vote against a black candidate, may actually turn into a reverse Bradley Effect this election. That’s that many whites will vote for Obama because he’s black. That notion is just as dubious as the Bradley Effect. But to even raise the possibility tells much about changing times and attitudes.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).