According to an early December CNN poll, big majorities of Americans view our society as still poisoned by the lingering toxin of racism.
An astonishing 66 percent of whites and 84 percent of blacks classified racism as a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem -- and this harsh judgment of our society counts as spectacularly good news for the presidential aspirations of Sen. Barack Obama.
No one who considers racism a national problem is likely to rule out a candidate on the basis of race alone; in fact, an appealing black candidate would likely benefit from the idea that he (or she) can provide an instant solution for centuries of injustice and a one-person bridge across the racial divide.
Another current poll (by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, on Dec. 5-6) shows that by a ratio of more than 2-1 (17 percent to 7 percent) respondents say that a candidate's African-American background will make them more likely (as opposed to less likely) to vote for him.
In this particular poll, classification as African-American benefits a candidate more substantially than identification as a woman, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, or a Mormon (where the reaction is negative by a crushing margin of more than 3-1 -- sorry Gov. Romney!)
In any event, it's easy to understand why the big majorities who worry about racism as a factor in American life would prefer a black candidate as a means to cure, or at least improve, the lingering sense of injustice and resentment.
Even among those citizens who don't think that racism is much of a problem in the country (about one-third of whites), the victory of a black candidate for president offers the ultimate proof that they're right in their conviction that we've transcended our biased past.
Polling evidence and common sense both suggest that the nation is more than ready for the election of a black president; apparently, we're eager for it.
In addition to all the domestic advantages of placing the right person of color in the White House, there are obvious international benefits to attract those who worry about the nation's declining popularity in the rest of the world.A black president not only would provide an immediate, visceral connection with Africa but also would win enthusiastic responses from Asia, Europe, and especially Latin America as a welcome departure from the alleged "imperialism" that anti-Americans everywhere associate with white hegemony.
In the case of Barack Obama, his multiracial background counts as such an obvious, powerful advantage that it easily makes up for his lack of leadership experience (only two undistinguished years in the Senate) and an ultraliberal voting record that would otherwise alienate most moderates and all conservatives.
Though he proudly identifies himself as African-American (as a reflection of his Kenyan father), he refers frequently to his white, Kansas-born mother and also acknowledges the Asian influence in his upbringing.
He was born and raised in Hawaii (with its heavy Asian-American majority) and spent part of his childhood living in Indonesia with the Indonesian stepfather his mother married shortly after his parents divorced.
With his strong roots among blacks, whites and Asians -- along with his Islamic middle name, Hussein -- he comes across like a political version of Tiger Woods, not just biracial, or even multiracial, but transracial.
And like Tiger Woods, Obama carries none of the ghetto associations that many whites resent and fear in some prominent blacks.
He projects the aura of Harvard, not the 'hood, and offers a distinctive combination of personal warmth and stylistic cool.
There's nothing even vaguely menacing about the junior senator from Illinois and in contrast to many other black leaders, who seem to convey a sense of grudge and simmering anger, Obama may be the least angry major politician since Ronald Reagan.
Obama seems so distant from racial stereotypes, in fact, that some observers wonder whether he might alienate the African-American community as somehow inauthentic, as "too white," to connect with inner-city voters.
In this regard, it certainly helps that his photogenic wife and children are unequivocally black.
Moreover, in the drive to win African-American support, the senator boasts a far more important qualification than his mixed-race origins: He's a liberal Democrat.
In the 2006 gubernatorial elections in Pennsylvania and Ohio, African-American voters overwhelmingly chose white Democrats over black Republicans.
However "white" Barack Obama may seem, he's not as white as Al Gore or John Kerry and both of those pampered Ivy Leaguers won close to 90 percent of the national black vote.
Does Obama really need to do better than that among African-Americans in order to win the presidency?
For the senator from Illinois, it's a long, treacherous journey from the currently rhapsodic media hype to taking the oath of office in 2009.
Obama must deal with his acknowledged lack of experience, the intimidating money and establishment support already committed to Hillary Clinton, and his untested character when it comes to dealing with the crisis-a-day challenges of a national campaign.
There are, in other words, formidable obstacles for Obama to overcome, but his racial identity doesn't count as one of them.