Obama inspires black Minnesotansby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
You have to wonder what Martin Luther King would say. Forty years after Dr. King's death, for the first time, a black man has a real shot at the White House. What does Barack Obama's candidacy mean to African-Americans in Minnesota?
St. Paul, Minn. — At age 38, Jefferson Cooper will get his first chance to vote for president this year. He escaped the violence of his native Liberia, and he spent nine years as a refugee in other West African countries before making it to the United States in 1999. A year and a half ago, he got his U.S. citizenship. Cooper swells with patriotism when he explains why he's supporting Barack Obama.
"This is not about Obama," he says. "This is about America. This is about what America is all about. I traveled all the way from West Africa to here, because of what this country stands for. And to see a man from my culture, a man from my lineage, getting the support of the White, the Black, the Hispanic, it tells me that, hey, you can be what you want to be in this great country no matter what the people have to say."
Cooper said he watched for hours in amazement as the results rolled in showing Obama had won the Iowa caucuses. Julianne Leerssen was also blown away by Obama's win that night.
"I said I couldn't believe it!" she says. "That in and of itself is history happening," Leerssen said.
Leerssen, an attorney who works in North Minneapolis, has been backing Obama since last fall. But the idea that he could actually win didn't seem real to her until Iowa.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week suggests a significant surge in support for Obama among African-Americans nationwide. The poll showed 60 percent of black voters support Obama, compared to 32 percent for Clinton.
That's a huge turnaround from what the same poll found just one month before, when it showed Clinton leading Obama about 60-30, instead of the other way around.
"His victory in Iowa, his strong showing in New Hampshire, definitely did have an impact here, because what you see is his biggest increase was on people saying that he has the best chance of being elected president," said Washington Post polling anaylst Jennifer Agiesta.
"He's up 20 points among African-Americans on that measure, and so the perception that he can actually be elected is a big driver of his support," said Agiesta.
A USA Today/Gallup poll out last week showed almost exactly the same thing -- large numbers of black voters jumping from Clinton to Obama.
"The race question comes up, you know: Should it matter that he's black?" Leerssen asked. "It does matter to me, because he can bring a voice that we've never had. I myself am a person of mixed race. I want somebody who knows my struggle as an identity politics in Washington. Yah, that makes a difference."
Obama, himself, doesn't talk about his race that often on the campaign trail. That's actually what Andre Koen likes about him.
"I think it's a good thing because the issues that we're dealing with today aren't as simple as black and white," Koen said. "It's not African-Americans versus white folks. I think the conversations just about race are so stifling and so divisive, and I'm proud that he hasn't had to use those conversations."
Koen, who lives in Minneapolis and used to be a teacher, said Obama makes a great role model for black children -- representing a path to success through education and working within in the system, instead of fighting against it.
He hopes Obama will also establish a new paradigm for Black political leaders, many of whom Koen thinks are too quick to blame the problems facing Black America on racism, alone.
But not all African-Americans see Obama as a breath of fresh air. Evy Engrav-Lano doesn't even think of Obama -- whose father immigrated to the United States from Kenya -- as black.
"While I think he is brown, and he's worked in the inner city," Engrav-Lano explained, "it's a different experience when you're the umpteenth generation living in the United States, when your great-great grandfather was hung by the KKK for teaching other black people to read and write, and you know the struggles of other black people, because you've lived it and you've been there. And I don't hear that from him. Maybe he's had those experiences, but that's not what he's saying."
Engrav-Lano, who is 44 and lives in Minnetonka, Minn., wants a candidate who talks about the plight of poor Black people and the number of young Black men in prison. She loved Bill Clinton, because she thinks he understood those issues. She hasn't been sold on Hillary Clinton, yet, though. Of all the Democrats running, she likes John Edwards the best.
But even though Engrav-Lano isn't impressed with Barack Obama's political message, she says it would still be inspiring to her if he actually won the election.
"I think that would be amazing," she said. "Yes, it would mean a lot to me, because it means that attitudes in the United States are changing."
The Black vote will play a major role in the next big contest of the Democratic nomination battle. As many as 50 percent of the voters in Saturday's South Carolina primary are expected to be African-American.
- All Things Considered, 01/21/2008, 5:23 p.m.