Richard Reeves

An Election to Try Men's Souls

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- These are the times, this is the election, that will reveal men's (and women's) souls.

The wonderful diversity of the candidates for president this time thrills this old Protestant, who remembers when the conventional wisdom was that only we were suitable for and deserving of the nation's highest office. When I was a kid in Jersey City, "mixed neighborhood" meant Italians and Irish -- and a lot of folks were ready to got to war if an Italian guy was seen with an Irish girl anyplace except at Mass in St. Aedan's or St. Anthony's.

That was a long time ago, but there is going to be a lot of that kind of dark passion in the streets until November. For instance, this election could very well be decided by a single question: How many Hispanics will vote for a black man? Not many, according to the first polls here in California. The Field Poll here puts Barack Obama's Hispanic vote among California Democrats at just 19 percent.

Local Hispanic politicians and other leaders are falling all over themselves to say, well, Hillary Clinton (and Bill) is so well-known among the Hispanics of California -- already endorsed by dozens of Latino biggies -- and they don't really know much about this new guy. Maybe, but I guarantee you they know he's black, and they are not thrilled that a black man could go all the way before a Latino or Latina. Hispanics and blacks have been fighting over the same political turf -- and street turf, too -- here for decades. The same is true to a lesser degree in many other parts of the country.

This is a generalization open to criticism: Many Latinos simply don't like black people. It is an inevitable, significant result of recent American history, from politics to business to gang wars. Until 2002, blacks were the United States' largest minority group, and they gained some benefit from that: political office, affirmative action, and considerable movement from poverty into the middle class among them. One benefit: Harvard Law School admission, the kind of thing that can help propel a smart Kenyan-American higher politically than his parents' generation could imagine in their wildest dreams.

Good for him. Good for us. But an Obama victory will not change the fact that blacks are (and have been) losing political clout to Hispanics. That will continue: More Latino immigrants are coming, and blacks, the ones who have prospered these last years, are having fewer children, while the new immigrants are still having large families.

It was inevitable that sooner or later the Obama candidacy would run into more than one wall. The higher he gets, the closer the walls. Hillary Clinton and her supporters, of course, can say the same thing -- "glass ceiling" and all that. If she is elected, the ceiling is smashed, as it was in Great Britain, Germany and other more progressive countries. But if Clinton loses, it may not be because she is a woman, but because she is Hillary. She is just too well-known and too controversial to be defined by gender alone.

Sen. Obama, though, has more problems. Some people will see him only as a black man. Shanto Iyengar, a prominent Stanford communications professor, is involved in a series of complicated studies to try to estimate the importance of today's blacks-need-not-apply attitudes. Part of the methodology involves digitally darkening photos of the senator -- and, yes, the darker the skin color of the photo shown to voters, the greater the hostility.

Not all the results are in, but Iyengar estimates that 5 percent to 6 percent of voters (both Democratic and Republican), whatever they tell pollsters, might vote against Obama simply because he is black. Actually small numbers like that indicate we've come a long, long way. My guess would be that the number was way more than 50 percent in the bad old days.

We are not going to know more about such things until people actually vote. But with the field we have now, including a Mormon, an Italian and an aggressive evangelical, we will be analyzing the 2008 election for years because it will hold a mirror up to a very new America. Perhaps a better one than we think.

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