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The Willie Horton of the 2008 Campaign?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Conduct a thought experiment: Imagine that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor to presidential candidate Barack Obama and preacher with controversial views, was not an outspoken black man but a white woman who penned her controversial ideas in a scholarly journal. If Wright's views were the only thing that mattered, his race, sex and public style ought to make no difference. Assuming she held the same views and shared a lengthy history with the presidential candidate, a white female scholar ought to damage Obama's popularity in the same way the pastor has done recently.

There is no way to conduct such an experiment in real life, but Arizona State University social psychologist Steven Neuberg believes that Wright has damaged the biracial Obama because, in his public persona -- as much as in his views -- he activates unconscious fears and racial stereotypes that many voters have about angry black men. Black leaders who are popular with white voters invariably find ways to put such fears to rest, Neuberg said.

"Like Colin Powell but unlike Jesse Jackson, the cues that suggest there is someone out there who may want to do you harm are not there" with Obama, Neuberg said. "It is the reason Powell could have won eight years ago and that Obama can win. His bearing is non-threatening."

"What this Wright guy has done is tagged Obama as a black guy," Neuberg added. "He is more aggressive and attacking, and that engages in people's minds and that makes race salient."

If Neuberg is right, Wright might well be the 2008 version of Willie Horton, the black Massachusetts inmate whose case was used against Democratic candidate Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. Talking up the controversy, moreover, gives Obama's opponents a potent weapon: They can hook into voters' hidden fears and racial attitudes without ever saying a word about the radioactive subject of race.

-- Shankar Vedantam

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