CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Sharrell Shields speaks for many African Americans when she says she's starting to believe Democrat Barack Obama is going to be the next U.S. president -- but a certain skepticism keeps her hopes in check.
While some polls show Obama, who would be the first black president, has opened a double-digit lead over Republican John McCain with just three weeks to go before the November 4 election, generations of slow and sometimes stalled steps toward racial equality have left some blacks wary of disappointment.
"I'm about half and half right now that he'll win," said Shields, an 18-year-old university student and Obama supporter at a union-sponsored candidate forum in Cincinnati.
"Now when November comes and we're almost there, then I'll believe. Right now, I just have my fingers crossed."
Baptist preacher and Obama backer Brenda Girton-Mitchell, 60, said she had enough faith "in the human psyche" to believe that Obama would prevail over McCain.
But she echoes blacks across the country when she notes that polls have fooled them before, citing the famous case of Tom Bradley, an African American who narrowly lost the 1982 California governor's election despite leading in polls.
Bradley's defeat was a surprise and some observers concluded that many white voters had lied about their intentions.
"Very often people are not very honest about race, sexual preferences. They say the politically correct thing," said Girton-Mitchell, interviewed in downtown Washington, D.C., during lunch hour.
"I believe there are some people who say, 'I can vote for a black man' in public but then go into the voting booth (and change their mind)."
Black Americans faced obstacles to voting in the U.S. South until the mid-1960s and authorities there backed a violent campaign that included murders and church burnings to prevent blacks from registering to vote.
Since then, African Americans have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats and they form the party's most reliable ethnic constituency. Black turnout is expected to increase this year because of enthusiasm for Obama and he is expected to get about 95 percent of that vote, but many remain wary because of what they say are electoral setbacks for black candidates.
Author Gil Robertson, an Obama supporter, said the success of the Illinois senator leaves African Americans feeling both optimistic and cynical -- wary that centuries of raised hopes and disappointments may be repeated once more.
"We have every reason to be pessimistic given our history and experiences in this country," Robertson said. "Folks are hopeful but I tell people: 'Don't get too caught up in this because you might be let down.'"
Todd Shaw, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, agreed.
"There is both a cynicism and an optimism (among African Americans) and it speaks to their sense of doubleness -- a sense of believing when Obama says there is this American promise but also ... remembering that race still remains a minefield in American politics," Shaw said.
Missouri voter and Obama supporter Valerie Freeman, an African American, also has doubts about the polls, and she worries racism may threaten Obama's safety if he does win.
"It will be frightening if he wins. There will be people who won't be able to take it," said Freeman, 37. "As it becomes closer to becoming a reality ... people are showing who they really are. People like to think America is a progressive country, but we aren't there yet."
Still, some blacks have thrown doubts to the wind and are embracing what appears to be Obama's strong chance of victory.
"I am very confident at this point ... If we ever we had a chance, this is the chance. If ever we had an individual, this is the individual," said Ron Busby, president of the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce.
Busby said he can't worry about what voters will do once inside the polling booth -- and even thinks Republicans who are covert Obama supporters may reverse the so-called Bradley effect.
"I've been in situations where I've had an Obama pin or bumper sticker and I have had elderly white women whisper to me, 'You know, I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm voting for him.' They may not say it in public, but given the opportunity they might come out and support him," said Busby.
Retired Cincinnati teacher Thelma Davis, 73, is just as optimistic, believing that even though her own father was prevented from voting, she will soon see a black man elected president.
"A lot of people in my age group are excited because they can relate back to when they didn't even vote," said Davis. "Now I tell my grandchildren, 'You can be anything you want to be.'"
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Washington, Matt Bigg in Atlanta, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Andrew Stern in Chicago; Editing by Eric Beech