A lot of ink and angst has been spilled over this week's New Yorker cover--but there's a much bigger story about Obama, racial politics, and the campaign. And it's one with far more troubling implications than a botched attempt at political satire. Today's NYT reports on its latest survey of public opinion on racial matters. The complete results are here. It punctures a hole in the "we have overcome"/"post-racial" bubble that has floated over the Obama campaign for the last year.
For those of us who follow public opinion surveys on race, there is nothing particularly surprising about the NYT survey. Blacks are more pessimistic than whites about race relations (only 29 percent of blacks state that race relations in the U.S. are "generally good" compared to 55 percent of whites). 68 percent of blacks claim to have experienced discrimination by race, compared to 26 percent of whites (I wonder who they are and what discrimination they have experienced). The survey confirms white Americans' persistent belief that blacks have an equal or better chance of getting ahead in American life today compared to whites. According to the Times, 60 percent of whites share that belief. (If white folks spent more than an hour in an average urban public school, perhaps they would change their minds).
Part of the reason for the black-white gap is reflected in the response to the survey's question: "how many of the people who live in the immediate area around your home are black?" 83 percent of whites answered "none" or "a few"--a reflection of the reality of persistent racial separation in American life. The survey also reflects the appalling ignorance of America's racial demographics. Though only 13 percent of Americans are black, a third of whites believe that blacks comprise 20-30 percent of the population and an astonishing third believe that blacks make up 30-50 percent of the population. A particularly ignorant 8 percent of whites believes that more than half of Americans are black. The black figures are, alas, little better. In fact 17 percent of blacks believe that more than half of Americans share their background. (It's time to pick up Rick Shenkman's book, Just How Stupid Are We: Facing the Truth About the American Voter?)
What the results of the racial divide mean for the November election remains to be seen. Ominously, only 35 percent of whites have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama and 57 percent view him unfavorably. High black turnout could be critical in a few swing states, but if whites do not overcome their suspicion of candidate Obama, especially in the Rustbelt (or what demographer John Logan calls the "ghettobelt" for its high rates of racial segregation), we might have President McCain. Regardless of who wins, what is clear is that the symbolism of a black candidate--and even of a black president--is not enough to overcome the still-deep rooted patterns of racial segregation, separation, and mistrust that are still endemic in American society.