Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University, Department of Geological Sciences

The state of Virginia, which hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, is leaning toward Barack Obama. So is North Carolina, which has only voted for a Democratic president once: Jimmy Carter in 1976. The polls are cheering and news no one expected, but Obama supporters—at least the ones I know—are still chewing their tongues and sleeping poorly. Racism, they mutter. Americans will never elect a black man for president. Then, without fail, they mention the Bradley effect.

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In 1982, a black Democrat named Tom Bradley lost the governorship of California to a white Republican even though, just days before the election, polls gave Bradley a double-digit lead. During the 1980s, a negative gap between poll numbers and election results continued to afflict black candidates running in Chicago, New York, and Virginia. If Obama loses this election, he'll lose it to the Bradley effect. (If he loses honestly, that is. If he loses dishonestly, he'll lose to the Diebold effect.) Some good news: In August, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard released a statistical study showing that the Bradley effect vanished around 1996, and last week, the University of Washington released a statistical study showing a reverse Bradley effect during the presidential primaries.

You can't really survey for the Bradley effect, since it's all about people saying one thing to pollsters and doing another thing in the voting booth. And racism is not monolithic. It has shades and nuances. But lately I've been wondering whether Obama's particular heritage—being a descendant of voluntary African immigration rather than a descendant of American slavery—will help him with the borderline bigots. Borderline bigots, the ones who are shy about being perceived as bigots, are the engine of the Bradley effect.

It just so happens that there are a bunch of them among my relatives, some of them openly racist (though they prefer the term "prejudiced"), who live in Suffolk, Virginia, in a town just across from the North Carolina border and right next to the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Williamses—my mother's family—are Southerners' Southerners, the iconic kind. They live among the pine trees, on family land, with falling-down tool sheds, caches of Civil War memorabilia, and ponds you can catch turtles in. They came from England before the American Revolution, owned slaves, were financially ruined during the Civil War and Reconstruction, built themselves back up, and were ruined again by the Great Depression. Everyone goes to church and a few have been to college. They know the family legends up and down: how our ancestor Captain Thad was shot through the forehead in the summer of 1864 at the Battle of Petersburg; how my granddad was so poor his family used to eat rotten meat, setting it up on a hot tin roof to drive the maggots out before cooking it; how, in those days, great-granddad tanned granddad's hide for forgetting to lock up the mule, which drank all the lemonade the family had made for a wedding (lemons were expensive then); and how the black neighborhood is called "Williamstown" because, they say, many of its residents are descendants of slaves that the family used to own.

Paradoxically, my mother thinks her generation is more segregated than my grandparents' generation. My granddad, for ex ample, worked alongside black folks on the family farm and later hired a couple of longtime black assistants when he was a bricklayer. But the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s created feelings of unease and distrust among whites. White folks and black folks didn't know how to be together anymore, so they drifted apart.

My granddad lost a business to those fraught years. He invested a lot of time and money turning a raw piece of land into a swimming pool with a snack bar and picnic area. He and his family worked nights and weekends felling trees, excavating, killing copperheads, laying brick. When the pool opened in the summer of 1964, a century after Captain Thad was shot through the forehead, it was whites-only by default. Three years later, just when the pool was starting to turn a profit, a black family showed up to swim. My mother remembers watching granddad walk past the white bathers and talking quietly with the black family, telling them they weren't allowed in. It hurt him, my mother says—he didn't want to turn them away, but knew that if he hadn't, his white clientele would evaporate. The way granddad saw it, he had three choices: integrate the pool, keep it segregated and risk a lawsuit, or turn his back on years of family labor and close it. He wasn't willing to do the first, wasn't able to afford the second, so took the third—agonizing—choice.

My family's bitterness about the 1960s is not an abstraction. So when I called a few of them on the phone the other day to talk about Obama, their tone was less anxious that I'd expected. Most of them are conservatives—one uncle called this presidential contest "a race between two Democrats"—but they don't seem particularly concerned that a black man is running for president.

I tested out my theory about Obama not being a descendant of slavery. I asked one of my older female relatives whether she thought of Obama in the same category as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and other black politicians she considers openly hostile to the interests of white folks.

"Well I reckon there's a difference," she said. "Those [descendants of slavery] still want to blame you and I for what happened to 'em. In reality, it was their own people who sold them into slavery for money. Their people did it to 'em. But if somebody came of their own accord, it might not bother him so much."

Obama has been very careful to not seem like a bitter black man, and my Southern relatives are extremely sensitive to any hints of black anger or resentment (one relative says the NAACP wants to turn black people "into gods on earth"). If they don't see bitterness in Obama, the strategy is working. No matter what happens in November, Obama has smashed the mold for black political leaders. (Which is probably why Tavis Smiley—who saw himself as the heir apparent of the Jackson/Sharpton/reparations school of black politics—reflexively opposed Obama. He was jealous.)

Racism in the South is also changing, receding from the public sphere while staying in the private sphere. Meaning: You can keep your prejudice and still vote for a nonwhite politician. "If Colin Powell were running, I'd vote for him in a heartbeat," one of my aunts said. Then, later in the conversation, "I don't want any of my kids marrying outside their race."

What if one of your kids wanted to marry Colin Powell?

"No. I know it sounds un-Christian, but I have certain expectations. Black people just aren't attractive to me. I wouldn't want a little black grandbaby."

So you think Colin Powell is intelligent, honest, and capable?

"Oh yes."

Good enough to be the most powerful man in the most powerful country on earth—but not good enough to marry your daughter?

"I just don't think the races should mix."

It might not sound like it, but that's progress. Twenty-six years ago—back when Tom Bradley lost the California gubernatorial race—people like my aunt wouldn't have copped to voting for a black man for anything.

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Since then, Virginia has elected the nation's first black governor: Douglas Wilder in 1990. And the city of Suffolk, home of "Williamstown," elected its first black mayor, Curtis Milteer. In 2002, Milteer jumped into national headlines by declaring April to be Confederate History Month. His successors, all white, have refused to declare a Confederate History Month. ("Buncha wusses," another aunt said. "Scared of their own heritage and history.")

The racism abides, but is in its autumn—slowly changing colors and fading away. That aunt who'd want Colin Powell for a president but not an in-law? She raised a few eyebrows in her day by marrying an Italian Catholic from Massachusetts. While we talked on the telephone, she told me her daughter is raising a few eyebrows by dating a nice Jewish boy. recommended