Forget about the polls and all the speculation about whether America is ready for a black man in the White House.

You want to know how people really think? Stick them alone in a room with a computer and an Internet connection and stand back.

There are some people who will say just about anything under the pseudo-anonymous cover of the Internet that they wouldn't dare say in public. It's when they think no one else can see them that the sheets come out of the closet, the hoods come out of the trunk, and their true selves come out.

As a columnist, I'm used to receiving correspondence from readers. Comments run the gamut from excessive praise to lambasting me for my "radical, far left leanings." I welcome critical comments so long as the letterwriter is civil and doesn't use profane language or racial epithets.

My job is not to make friends but to try to shed light on important, often overlooked issues — hopefully to help spark intelligent debate.

What I take issue with are people who have no interest at all in engaging in rational discourse and who merely want to use the Internet to bully people whose political views are different from their own.

People who think it's perfectly all right to send racist epithets to a stranger's e-mail because she wrote a column that they didn't agree with. Then have the nerve to sign off with "God Bless America," conveniently forgetting that being able to speak one's mind without fear of intimidation is one of our nation's core principles.

"I saw your picture and you are not even American," one recent missive said. "You look like a Chinese, Indian and Muslim pig eater all in one. Go back to the country where your men beat you and treat you like a dog."

Hmmm. Exactly what country would that be?

Or how about this doozy from another enlightened reader of this newspaper in response to my recent column about the media's double standard in its coverage of Sarah Palin's teenage daughter's pregnancy:

"Every time I see a young, black pregnant female I am shaken by and fearful of the depth of utter, slack-witted soul-deep stupidity mirrored in her face. I know she is about to once again saddle a weary society with yet another barbarian sent to our public schools, and if a boy child, subsequently to prison."

Then, there was the one that said simply "Stupid N-" in the subject head. Needless to say, it went straight to the delete, do not pass go, basket.

Why does the conversation have to begin at the level of personal attack and racial invective? Why do so many on the right feel so compelled to squelch any dissenting view?

Now, I know there are plenty of liberals who aren't wrapped too tight. And I'm sure they write scathing e-mails to David Brooks at the New York Times, syndicated columnist George Will and other conservative writers.

But do they call them racial epithets for white people? I somehow doubt it.

Why do certain people react so violently to a black columnist talking about race?

That was taken to the extreme last year when Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, who is black, wrote a column about a black-on-white crime that angered white supremacists.

Not only did Pitts receive hostile phone calls and death threats, but one hate Web site published Pitts' home address and urged its followers to picket his home. The Miami Herald, where Pitts works, tried to get the site owner to remove Pitts' personal information because it could potentially endanger the columnist's life. The site operator said, and I quote: "Frankly if some loony took the info and killed him, I wouldn't shed a tear."

On a positive note, however, hateful e-mails like the ones I've described are in the minority. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of insightful letters from well-informed whites and other non-black readers of all ages.

An 84-year-old white woman says she doesn't always agree with what I have to say, but that she too was struck by "the obvious double standard in the media" in the coverage of Palin's teenage daughter's pregnancy.

A 31-year-old dental hygienist who calls herself a resident of "white bread Alamo" says to "keep it coming."

A 74-year-old white man from Benicia wrote: "A couple of months ago, a black high school student went to jail for having sex with a minor and is now labeled a sexual deviant. But in Alaska, a white 18-year-old who impregnated a 17-year-old girl is an example of family values."

"Thanks," he said, "for printing what I think a lot of voters, both black and white, see hear and feel."

We'll find out just how true that is come November.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group — East Bay. Her columns run Wednesday in Metro and Sundays on the opinion page. Reach her a tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com.