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Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Bradley Effect, personalized

During the run-up to the Presidential election, much was made of the Bradley Effect, named after Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, who ran for governor of California in 1982 but was soundly defeated by Pete Wilson despite having been ahead in the polls by up to five points. The theory is that white people told pollsters they intended to vote for Bradley, a black man, in order not to appear racist, but that when they got into the privacy of the voting booth, they pulled the lever for Wilson, a white man.

The Bradley Effect did not materialize during the recent election, as Obama won by approximately the same amount that he had been ahead in the polls.

But let's think about the Bradley Effect for a moment. Why should white people feel compelled to tell an anonymous pollster that they intended to vote for the black man when they didn't? Is it "racist" to vote for a white man? And why would white people care what an anonymous pollster (most polls are conducted over the phone) thinks of them?

There is no reverse Bradley Effect, to my knowledge: blacks in general certainly don't feel obliged to tell pollsters that they intend to vote for a white man. What does this say about race relations, and intimidation, and what is considered acceptable?

This got me to thinking, if the Bradley Effect influenced whites who talked to anonymous pollsters, how many whites in this past election felt obliged to lie to their black friends or acquaintances and tell them that they intended to vote for Obama when they didn't?

I would feel complete and utter disgust for this phenomenon except for one thing.....I actually feel this tug myself.

I started off this cycle intending to vote for Obama, since he started off as the peace candidate, but the more I found out about his history, and the more he flip flopped, the more undecided I became. In the end I voted for neither candidate. I never lied to anybody about my thinking as it evolved, but I did notice a subtle shift in my own reactions to telling people, especially blacks, where I stood. At the beginning, if the subject came up, and I told a black acquaintance that I was voting for Obama, I would actually find myself feeling ever so slightly virtuous about it. (How pathetic is that?) Towards the end, whenever I discussed my intentions, and the fact that I wouldn't necessarily vote for Obama, I always felt obliged to defend my thinking. (Why?)

You read and hear a lot about guilty white liberals, and I always think, how incredibly stupid they are. But, as I said, I actually feel that tug myself. But why should I feel guilty? I wasn't even around during the Jim Crow Era (I was born fourteen days before Brown vs. Board of Education was decided -- should I feel guilty about those fourteen days?), I never "oppressed" a black, and I always try to judge people as individuals. Yet....I still feel that need to prove I'm not racist. (I fight it, but I do feel it.)

But why? Have I been brainwashed like everyone else? Why should I feel that slight compulsion when talking to a black to show that I'm not racist? When I see white people who try so desperately hard to be politically correct, I'm disgusted by them. But when I gauge my own reactions honestly, I find that I'm one of them. Sorta.

All I can do is promise to continue to fight those feelings. And I don't think I'm alone in having them.

One phenomenon I've noticed which does work the other way is that I will meet, not infrequently, blacks (usually older ones) who are extra polite and extra friendly, in places like hospitals or YMCAs. I often think, ah, those poor things, they feel they have to go the extra mile to make up for all the rude young blacks whom they know white people encounter on the subway and so on. And I feel for them, I honestly do. It's certainly not their fault that some people misbehave. (It's possible I'm misreading this situation, but that's my take.)

Another thing I've noticed is that my intelligent black friends often feel obliged to make more of an effort to show whites that they're smart. They're almost always smarter than the whites they're dealing with, but they still have to act like performing fleas. I always think, how wearying that must be. (I'm pretty sure I'm not misreading this situation.)

Our diversity is our awkwardness.

The Bradley Effect reminds me a little of a group of young guys, who, when they see an attractive young woman, all feel obliged to make lustful comments in order to prove their heterosexuality.

I was always more impressed by the guy who could find it in himself to say, "Ah....she doesn't do that much for me."

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