When I was a young teenager, I was a big boxing fan. My favorite boxer was the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Larry Holmes. I liked how Holmes boxed and I liked his personality. I thought he was a funny guy. When I was in seventh-grade, Larry Holmes had a fight with an Irish-American boxer named Gerry Cooney. The promoters of the fight, including Don King, knew they would get better ratings if they accentuated the racial component of the fight. They called Cooney ‘The Great White Hope’ and they tried to turn Holmes into Apollo Creed. I was immune to all the racial marketing. Larry Holmes was my man and I didn’t want him losing to some punk upstart with no skills.
One of my junior high school friends pulled me aside one day and asked me in a hushed tone, “Why do you always root for the black guy?” I didn’t really understand the question. First of all, I couldn’t think of another example of me rooting against a white fighter. Holmes hadn’t fought any white guys that I could remember. But, secondly, it had never occurred to me to root against Larry Holmes because he was black and his opponent was white. This was my first real encounter with racism, and I found it very disturbing. The thing is, my friend wasn’t a racist. He’s not a racist today. But he gave me a lesson on how race consciousness can work.
As I grew older, I found race consciousness in other settings. I found it in white, urban machine politics. I found it in Hillbilly bars in Western Michigan. I found it college dormitories and cafeterias. And here’s what I learned.
In some white-segregated settings, whites will not admit to each other that they will support the black guy. It could be in a sports-context, a music/cultural context, or a political context, but sometimes whites are ashamed to admit to each other that they like something associated with black culture. You can call it a reverse Bradley Effect, but I think it explains why there is no pattern of white undecided voters moving over to McCain late in this campaign. I think a lot of white voters are uncomfortable telling a pollster, or even their friends and family, that they like Michael Jordan, or Stevie Wonder, or Barack Obama. That’s just the way it is. And I think it means that McCain’s last hope will be illusory.