Twelve men to hold office of President were slave-owners during their lifetimes - eight of those keeping black men and women in bondage while they were chief executive. The first was George Washington, who freed his slaves upon his death and was the rare American leader of his day to change his mind about the actual humanity of African slaves. Of the first five presidents, only John Adams never owned a black man. The last slave-owning American to serve as President was Ulysses Grant, the great Union general who died in 1885 - a year after Senator John McCain's paternal grandfather was born to a former slave-owning plantation family from Mississippi...and only ten years before Barack Obama's paternal grandfather was born in Kenya.
You can tease the family roots of both of our major candidates for president, and unwind a fading history of slavery, racism, colonialism and segregation. Indeed, Obama's unusually broad genealogy may contain the ultimate irony: several of his mother's ancestors appear to have been slave owners. To me, it's the immediacy of that history that stirs the imagination; in terms of generational advance, the turning over of leaves in the family scrapbook, most American history is shockingly near to us as we choose the 44th President of the United States.
Just 45 years after "I Have A Dream" - when I was a year old and Obama was all of two - an African-American man accepted the nomination for president of the Democratic Party, the same party whose solid Southern bloc opposed civil rights for a century after the Civil War. In the same year as Dr. King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial, a popular Democratic governor proclaimed: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever."
It is easy to forget just what a leap Obama's candidacy really is for this country; and it's a mistake to pretend we all enjoy a post-racial society in America. Today, a study by Stanford University for the Associated Press is making headlines with its claim that "40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks," including almost a third of independent and Democratic voters - the voters Barack Obama needs to win the Presidency.
"There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean there's only a few bigots," said Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman. Some excerpts from the study:
"We still don't like black people," said John Clouse, 57, reflecting the sentiments of his pals gathered at a coffee shop in Somerset, Ohio.
Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word "violent" strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with "boastful," 29 percent "complaining," 13 percent "lazy" and 11 percent "irresponsible." When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.
Among white Democrats, one third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.
The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree that "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites."
Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn't.
Among white independents, racial stereotyping is not uncommon. For example, while about 20 percent of independent voters called blacks "intelligent" or "smart," more than one third latched on the adjective "complaining" and 24 percent said blacks were "violent."
Nearly four in 10 white independents agreed that blacks would be better off if they "try harder."
The survey broke ground by incorporating images of black and white faces to measure implicit racial attitudes, or prejudices that are so deeply rooted that people may not realize they have them. That test suggested the incidence of racial prejudice is even higher, with more than half of whites revealing more negative feelings toward blacks than whites.
Is any of this surprising? Not to me. If you keep your ears open in daily life, experience will confirm in anecdotes what numbers say in polling. But it doesn't tell the whole story. [Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the Stanford/AP numbers are misleading]. In my research for CauseWired - my first book, due out November 10th - I looked very closely at the attitudes of millennials, that super-wired (and perhaps over-hyped) next boom generation born after 1980. Study after study on the attitudes of Americans in their teens and 20s shows a far more tolerant society growing toward their majority; in all the research, bias in race, gender, sexuality is fading. This does not necessarily portend support for progressive policy - or liberal politicians; indeed, the generation is less overtly political than the ones that precede it. But it's more color-blind and more open-minded. Again, keeping your ears open can confirm the research - my kids simply don't see color, and I'm sure yours don't either. [Also, there is plenty of evidence that the so-called Bradley Effect is no longer an operative worry for black candidates].
Yet, the electorate clearly does. For liberals, Barack Obama's ethnic mixture is a net positive - I will freely admit that after Hillary Clinton's historic campaign ended, the prospect of electing the first African-American president was one helluva consolation prize for this Democrat. Among independents, race is also just as clearly a mixed bag. Yet I would suggest that there's a strong point yet to be pressed that is lurking in the Obama political toolbox - and that's the idea that Barack Obama represents the sweeping reform of the black political landscape.
Clearly, there's a generational change in the wind; the group of African-American politicians who came to prominence during and after the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s is fading. But age is just part of the equation. Obama represents a new path: the African-American politician who happens to be black - perfectly aware of the problems of the black community in America - but not tied entirely to representing those concerns as (in general perception) almost the entirety of his policy brief. Early in Obama's candidacy, the combination of Obama's refusal to "be black" politically and close historic ties to President Clinton, kept many prominent African-American politicians from his side. Winning changed that, of course. Evident talent changed that. And perhaps the chance to move finally from the traditional we/they structure of racial politics in the United States also played a role.
In the last few weeks of this campaign, as Senator Obama attacks the treacherous economy, our perilous foreign policy, and issues like poverty, infrastructure, taxation, the environment, health care and education, the descendants of slaves and slave owners alike will see a politician of color take on the broad responsibility for public policy - and make his final, specific arguments for the highest office.
And that ain't hope, baby. That's change.