Negative themes often surface during political campaigns, but for the first time, the leading presidential candidates have found it impossible to avoid becoming the poster children for their stereotypes: old, female and black. Meanwhile, most American voters began ignoring those “barriers” a few decades ago, electing old, female and black representatives — as well as Asians and Hispanics — to hundreds, if not thousands of local and state positions.

So, why are those personal attributes an issue? Concerns about a candidate's age are disingenuous, for the most part. Plus, are you willing to admit that when you reach your 70s, you will be less competent? Also, saying that being a woman makes her less capable is intellectually dishonest and a dangerous position on so many fronts. (If you need more explanation, talk to your mother.)

Coded messages, however, have been used to highlight Sen. John McCain's age (he occasionally mangles some facts about the Iraq war), while Hillary Clinton's occasional shrewishness is noted to remind us she is a woman.

But, race is another matter. If you look a little closer, you'll find that, of the three, race is the most tantalizing issue. From the moment that we turned our national attention to Sen. Barack Obama's former minister, it became clear that the issue has been waiting for an incident that would propel it toward the spotlight. I would not attempt to defend Rev. Jeremiah Wright's hateful remarks, no more than I could defend Rev. Jerry Falwell for saying gays shared the blame for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Both men said such unforgiving and unforgiveable things because they believed in the rightness and righteousness of their causes. Their unambiguous remarks may appeal to some, but most of us have decided that despite our differences, we share enough values to live together, peaceably, for the most part.

But, now, 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, bigotry is still alive and challenges the ideal that being born equal in America at least means being treated equally, not just under the law, but by each other.

What is standing in our way of fulfilling that part of the American dream is more than understanding other types of people, it's understanding ourselves. From birth, we inherit the expectations of our race, religion and gender. If we blindly accept those expectations — rather than examining them throughout our lives — then we will barely know who we are, much less have the ability to understand the way someone else feels about their race, religion or gender.

Race appears to be the last great emotional divide in our country, and it finally showed its ugly face in this presidential campaign. Before we try to determine what's disturbing about the remarks of the likes of Reverends Wright or Falwell, we need to make sure we know who we are — as individuals — first.