The Story (on Racial Attitudes) That Obama and Romney Don't Want You to Read

Michael Ashley, from Rep. Frederica Wilson's office, Waikinya Clanton, president of the Congressional Black Associates, and Ifeoma Ike, with the Congressional Black Associates, listen as Senate Chaplain Barry Black speaks on the steps of the Capitol.  (National Journal)

This is a story that neither President Obama nor former Gov. Mitt Romney want you to read.

It is a piece by the Associated Press' esteemed polling unit with evidence that racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008. A majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not, the AP found in its landmark survey using cutting-edge methods. Quoting the AP now:

"Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote in his Nov. 6 contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. However, Obama also stands to benefit from a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said. Overall, that means an estimated net loss of 2 percentage points due to anti-black attitudes."

Full disclosure: I was AP's Washington bureau chief in 2008 and worked with the news organization's top-shelf pollster, Trevor Tompson, on a similar study that found deep-seated racial misgivings affecting the race between Obama and Sen. John McCain. I visited my hometown of Detroit with colleague Errin Haines to try to put human faces on the results. Our story found "people of both races living just blocks part who nonetheless spoke of each other like strangers. There was suspicion, contempt and yet, for many, a desperate hope that Obama's candidacy might be the final step in America's long path to racial equality."

Clearly, the Obama presidency hasn't wiped out racial prejudices. The AP measured racial attitudes using questions that explicitly asked respondents about their views and through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly. Quoting from the AP story again:

"In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell."

These findings should not surprise anybody. Whether you're white, black or brown, ask yourself: Do you harbor racial attitudes you wouldn't share in pleasant company? You almost certainly have friends or relatives whose honest views on race make you wince. Does anybody really believe we've made the full journey to racial equality?

And yet, this is almost a third rail of politics. When I accused the Romney campaign of exploiting racial prejudices with welfare reform, my Twitter stream and email erupted with claims that I was a liberal or racist, or both. A few of the invectives came from bigots. That didn't surprise me. Neither did the stern denials by the Romney campaign. What I didn't expect: Objections from the Obama campaign.

When I said during a forum in Charlotte that racial tensions cost Obama votes, Obama pollster Joel Benenson argued that white voters who are against Obama because of his race are already anti-Obama voters. He stopped short of accusing Romney of playing the race card. In 2008, Benenson denounced the AP polling methodology on race.

Benenson is a respected pollster and his objections should not be taken lightly. But Democratic strategists will tell you privately that Obama and his campaign aides tread carefully on the race issue to avoid looking like he's playing racial politics -- an especially dangerous game for a black man in America.

"(Obama and his team) are making the right decision not to "˜take the bait,''' Donna Brazile told me in Charlotte.  "We have seen time and time again that our short-lived conversations on race are both superficial and disingenuous."

This week, The Washington Post published a story saying that the 2012 presidential election is the most polarized since 1988. My tweet on the story sparked a debate over whether Obama was paying a price for the color of his skin.

@ron_fournier: WaPost and other find Obama's support among white voters eroding. How much of this, if any, related to racial prejudice? Discuss.

@Ed_Brookover: wouldn't the prejudice have been factored in early??

A respected GOP consultant, Brookover was essentially taking Benenson's position. Most of the people who responded to the Tweet disagreed with my premise, some harshly so. A few agreed including:

@David_Giard: I'm not saying it isn't a factor for some whites, but none will say so aloud.

@CeCe_Fall: race is a factor in my voting, but in a complex way. i won't vote for someone just because they are black, but i am conscious

This morning, I tweeted a link to the new AP poll. The reaction?

@acitrep: Here is Fournier, playing the race card pre-emtively again

If acknowledging that racial misgivings and misunderstandings are still a part of politics and life in America, I plead guilty.

Join in the conversation today @ron_fournier