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July 29th, 2008


by Ed Gold

Former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

Some of my friends who favor Barack Obama for the presidency are reluctant to contribute to his campaign. The problem is race.

None of these reluctant people have anti-racial feelings, but they are convinced the American electorate will not support a black person for the nation’s highest office.

The pessimism goes back to a gubernatorial race in California in 1982. Tom Bradley, a low-key, non-threatening black man who was the popular mayor of Los Angeles, was running for governor and strongly favored in the polls. On election day he suffered an unexpected defeat.

Ever since, political analysts have been citing that election as the “Bradley effect.” That’s shorthand for saying that white Americans, in the privacy of the voting booth, will sometimes ignore the real issues in a campaign and vote emotionally, which often can mean registering racial feelings of bias.

Racial bigotry and stereotyping show up in all walks of life, often in politics. Only two years ago, in a Senate race in Tennessee, race became a central theme in Republican TV ads against Rep. Harold Ford, a very light-skinned black person.

Ford had attended a pre-Superbowl party with hundreds of others and had participated with a very mixed crowd—both men and women. The TV ads run by the Republicans showed a scantily dressed blonde, all smiles, suggesting she had become a friend of Ford’s at the party. In reality, there was no relationship, just innuendo.

Ford lost in a close race, the only Democrat who was given a chance to win a Senate seat who didn’t make it.

This longtime blot on our democracy shows up in ethnic prejudice as well, sometimes taking a surreal turn.

As a young journalist, I worked in a small town in New Mexico where the plurality of citizens had Hispanic roots. This frightened almost everyone who wasn’t Latino.In fact, all the non-Hispanics called themselves Anglos. They saw themselves as the real Americans. One of the largest Anglo groups was the Irish! A senator from the state whose name was Chavez always pronounced his name, “Shavey,” so he would sound French.

Stereotypes die hard. I covered all the news in town, including felonies, politics and sports. I became friendly with all the team coaches. The track coach had a black runner whom he was very proud of. He told me: “This kid is great at the 60 and 100-yard dashes.” Then he added: “The blacks are good at the short distances.They fade after 400.” Yeah, tell that to the Ethiopians!

During my college days at Columbia, one incident remains with me. I was dating a student from Smith and her best friend was a young black woman from a wealthy Harlem family. She was going with one of our basketball stars so the three of us went to a game, and waited for her boyfriend afterwards. The plan was to meet a Columbia friend of mine and his girlfriend and go out to dinner.

After the game the four of us went to a dorm to meet the other couple. My friend arrived with his girlfriend and she stopped as soon as she entered the lobby. She seemed very upset, and said something to my friend, who walked over to us. He was not happy. “My date has a terrific headache so I think I better take her home.”

We got the message. His date never came over to meet us. It was not a good evening.

Setbacks on the racial or ethnic front are sometimes matched by heroics. One such hero was Fr. George Ford, who was an advisor to Catholic students at Columbia. He told us about five priests, all in street clothes, going into a Child’s restaurant in Manhattan for lunch. The waiter came over and said he was sorry but the restaurant did not serve mixed groups. One of the priests was black.

Ford said: “We are all priests.If you don’t serve us we will come back tomorrow wearing collars and picket your place.” The priests were served. A sad postscript: Ford, a Jesuit, was considered too liberal by the archdiocese and was sent back to his mid-Manhattan parish.

I was on the receiving end of a subtler form of prejudice. At Columbia, I had written an editorial for the Spectator newspaper, taking issue with the dean of our medical school who had strongly defended a quota system.It was specifically aimed at Catholics, Jews, and Italians. It was mid-century, and blacks were not a factor.

The paper’s editor opposed the editorial but all other memembers of the managing board supported it. He said to me: “You New Yorkers are too aggressive and that will hurt you at Columbia.”

Then there was the treasurer at Fairchild Publications where I managed the book operation. After a particularly successful month he said to me: “I don’t know how you merchants get away with it.”

Obama has clearly been a new generation candidate who has not played the role of black candidate as the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons have done in the past. He showed in Iowa that he could win in a state where almost all of the voters were white.

But of course that was in a Democratic primary.

He has stressed that his appeal is aimed at all racial and ethnic groups, no favorites. Can he prove that the Bradley effect” is now part of a bad history?

I hope my pessimistic friends will take a chance on the future and join the campaign.

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