PENSACOLA, Florida (Reuters) - Democrat Barack Obama’s race will complicate his White House bid, Americans say in both interviews and a poll showing that nearly a third of them acknowledge feeling racial prejudice.
In interviews with Reuters, some Americans reinforced the findings of the Washington Post-ABC News survey, published on Sunday, showing that race relations in the United States were improving but problems persist.
An Illinois senator who would become the first African American to be elected U.S. president, Obama said on Friday he expects Republicans to highlight the fact that he is black to try to make voters afraid of him.
Nearly half of those surveyed said race relations were in bad shape. Three in 10 acknowledged feelings of racial prejudice.
The survey was meant to help gauge the effect of both race and age on the November election in which Obama and Republican John McCain are vying to succeed Republican President George W. Bush.
McCain, who will be 72 in August, would be the oldest elected first-term U.S. president. McCain’s age was a more pronounced concern than Obama’s race, the survey found.
The 46-year-old Obama, born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, has cast himself as a candidate who can bridge divides within the country, including those involving race.
“America came a long way but it’s still not where it should be,” said artist Stacy Johnson, who lives and works in southern Arizona. “Even though there are no more lynchings, it’s still at the back of people’s minds. There’s still prejudice.”
Some 51 percent of those surveyed said race relations were excellent or good, but the gap between white and black views on race was the widest since polls dating to 1992, with blacks holding more negative views, according to the survey.
Assessing public sentiment on race, particularly among white Americans, is notoriously difficult.
Pollsters say some respondents appear to moderate their views to avoid revealing bias in a country with divisions over slavery, racial segregation and discrimination dating back to before the country’s founding more than 230 years ago.
In an interview, Georgia teacher Maggie Winfrey said she had seen a positive change in attitudes over past decades due to an increasing number of black professionals in the school system and immigrants, particularly Hispanics.
“Ten years ago race relations were completely different,” said Winfrey, who works at a school in Norcross, Georgia, and describes herself as a liberal Democrat. Democrats are more likely to be open and inclusive in terms of race than Republicans, she said.
One effect of diversity in her school was that people were more aware of their own prejudice and she said the fact that one third of those surveyed said they felt prejudice towards others was a healthy sign of increased self-knowledge.
Despite America’s reputation as a melting pot, many live in areas with little ethnic diversity. Robert Cochran, from Bountiful, Utah, said in his city, views on race were shaped by a lack of non-whites.
“People are uninformed and haven’t had a chance to meet people of other races. It makes people cautious because of their unfamiliarity,” said Cochran, 47, who works in finance.
“The more people like Barack Obama get in the limelight, the more people can see them and understand what other races are all about.”
Miranda Nixon, 20, and Natasha Jackson, 22, who work in a shop at Atlanta’s main airport, said that as African Americans they faced little overt prejudice, but sometimes discrimination was subtle.
Nixon, who works to support undergraduate studies in political science, said customers often viewed her as someone who did nothing with her life based on a stereotype about young black women who work in shops.
“I can’t really dwell on what people think of me because I am doing something to better my future even if everyone assumes I am a nobody,” she said.
On Friday, Obama predicted that Republicans, unable to play up their stewardship of the economy or handling of foreign policy under Bush, would run a campaign of fear.
“They’re going to try to make you afraid of me: ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’” Obama said.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Arizona and Caren Bohan on the campaign trail, Editing by Jim Loney and Michael Christie