It did seem as if the so-called “Bradley effect” did not come into play in the election after all. Why?
Leaving our of account the possibility that there really is no “Bradley effect,” no racism in our electoral politics, which seems impossible to accept, given the ubiquity of racism in our culture, what happened to our racism in the polling booth?
Benedict Carey argued in The New York Times on November 7th: the election illustrated that “mutual trust between members of different races can catch on just as quick, and spread just as fast, as suspicion.” Clearly we would like to believe this — and there is some truth to it.
On an individual level, person to person communication goes a long way towards mitigating prejudices. But to a very large extent, racism is a group processes that involves the identities of group members. One can hold to virulent racist views and still like and even enjoy friends who fit into those categories of hate. It isn’t even that people make exceptions so much that these are two different types of experience, the experience of the personal and the experience of one’s identity group. They can exist side by side.
I know this from my own experience. My father was an anti-semite who grew up in post-WWI Germany, but he loved and admired my jewish wife and he adored his jewish grandchildren. No conflict, no contradiction — except, of course, for me.
Obama, of course, never became a “friend” to the electorate, never established a personal relationship. He was and remained “Black.”
What happened, I think, is that over the course of the election he lost his strangeness. Repeated exposure in debates, interviews, advertisements, public appearances made him familiar to us, less threatening. To be sure, many remained “uncomfortable” with him, as they said, but many more lost their feeling that he was too different to understand. And, then, increasingly, Palin and McCain himself became strange, impulsive, intolerant, negative.
The process was a good example of how consciousness can, over time, and in the right circumstances, override unconscious prejudice.