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The 2012 vote: Race still matters
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The 2012 vote: Race still matters

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

It is time to look at a darker side of this campaign.

Last week, Colin Powell, former White House National Security Adviser, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Secretary of State who served under three Republican Presidents, endorsed—for the second time– Barack Obama for president.  Interviewed on the CBS This Morning show, Powell asserted that Obama’s leadership was best for the country domestically as well as in international affairs.

Later that morning John Sununu, a top adviser to Mitt Romney, former governor of New Hampshire, and White House Chief of Staff to George H.W. Bush said that Powell endorsed Obama out of loyalty to someone of his “own race.”

Sununu walked the statement back,  but by that time Powell’s former chief of staff,  Col. (ret.) Lawrence Wilkerson. told MSNBC that his and Powell’s own party was “full of racists.” Wilkerson, who is white, said that many Republicans wanted Obama defeated because of his race.

On Friday, the same day that Wilkerson was interviewed, the Associated Press reported on a new study showing that prejudice against African-Americans had increased 3 percent over four years earlier.  The survey showed a similar jump in prejudice against Hispanics.

A majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans), as did about 49 percent of independents.

Surveys about racial attitudes are subject to the Bradley effect: Named for the first and only African-American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, the effect controls for the tendency of survey subjects to deny or downplay their racial attitudes.  

How that will translate this year is not clear. One theory is that some people actually supported Obama in 2008 because they felt it was “good” and “right” for America to elect a qualified African-American as president. Four years later, they will now be inclined to rationalize that this time it is acceptable to vote against him because they have a clear conscience after having done the “right” thing in 2008.

Race matters among some members of the Jewish community, whether they admit it or not.  While such attitudes are hard to measure in empirical studies, impressionistic and anecdotal evidence suggests that some Jews can’t see past Obama’s skin color or ethnic background.

It is also worth considering whether the ascendancy of the Latino community, already more than 16 percent of the population, will spark an equally unsettling bias by the time we reach the end of the decade, when Latinos are projected to represent more than one-fifth of the nation.

Of course, Obama also benefits from racial solidarity. In the wake of superstorm Sandy, however, the question becomes whether African-Americans will go to the polls in numbers to counter any racial reversal among whites. Some black voters in the swing states where Sandy hit the worst may well not focus on the election. The storm will test the Obama team’s long term investment in their ground game.

What is most distressing is that in 2012, race is still as real an issue as ever, except that today no one wants to speak about it.

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