I would be cautious about reading too much good news into the recent NYT/CBS poll regarding Obama and Reverend Wright:

WASHINGTON — A majority of American voters say that the furor over the relationship between Senator Barack Obama and his former pastor has not affected their opinion of Mr. Obama, but a substantial number say that it could influence voters this fall should he be the Democratic presidential nominee, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

Who are these voters it could influence? Well not me say voters in the survey, just this guy I know:

While just 24 percent of voters said they thought the Wright issue would matter a lot or some to them in the fall, 44 percent said it would matter a lot or some to “most people you know.” And while just 9 percent of Democrats said the issue would matter a lot to them should Mr. Obama be their party’s nominee, even that small a slice of the electorate could be a problem for Mr. Obama if he won the nomination and the contest against Mr. McCain was close.

There has to be a way to exploit this metric for more accurate results: when discussing black candidates, or black people in general, some white people tend to be projecting their own feelings onto an anonymous other so they’ll feel less self-conscious about expressing their own views.

There was a good article in the WSJ over the weekend about what I believe is a related phenomenon.

Following a recent discussion in one of his classes about the campaign, in which most students expressed support for Sen. Obama, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociologist, asked his white students how many had a black friend on campus. All the white students raised their hands.

He then asked the black students how many of them had a white friend on campus. None of them raised their hands.

Now I laughed out loud when I read this, because it seemed to me both groups were exaggerating…black folks were playing down their relationships with white students on campus for political reasons–everyone gets extra-black their four years in undergrad, even/especially if they went to private school–and the white kids were probably naming people they knew, but weren’t really friends with, and were raising their hands to show how “open-minded” they are.

Turns out, I was half right.

The more he probed, Mr. Bonilla-Silva says, the more he realized that the definition of friendship was different. The white students considered a black a “friend” if they played basketball with him or shared a class. “It was more of an acquaintance,” recalls Mr. Bonilla-Silva.

Black students, by contrast, defined a friend as someone they would invite to their home for dinner. By that measure, none of the students had friends from the opposite race. Bonilla-Silva says when white college students were asked in series of 1998 surveys about the five people with whom they interacted most on a daily basis, about 68% said none of them were black. When asked if they had invited a black person to lunch or dinner recently, about 68% said “no.” He says his own research and more recent studies show similar results.

Keep in mind though, Duke is a college campus in the South that recently went through a very public, and very serious event (the Duke Rape case) that inflamed racial tensions on campus.

I think the anecdote and survey results illustrate the degree to which people place surface acceptance over genuine friendship–it’s enough to be on a “diverse” campus without actually reaching out to, or getting know, someone who is different from you . It also suggests people will say what they think they are supposed to say, rather than what’s real, when it comes to race.

At least they’ve got “Al” or “Suzie” to blame it on when the pollster calls.

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