Black voters say issues draw them to Obamaby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
Questions about how the issue of race will affect support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama have so far centered on white voters. But what about how race is influencing black voters? Some African Americans in the Twin Cities say that while race is a factor in how they'll cast their ballots, it's not the only one.
St. Paul, Minn. — Carolyn Smaller's interest in the presidential race is bordering on obsession. In her St. Paul floral shop on Selby Avenue, Wolf Blitzer and CNN keep her company all day long. Her windows are decorated with Obama/Biden signs, a first for Smaller in 17 years of store ownership.
"I've never put signs in my window before for anybody," Smaller said. "But I just did this time because of him."
In Smaller's opinion, Obama is a very special politician. She said you can see it in how quickly he ascended and in how people just gravitate toward him. But her excitement is tempered by realism and a little anxiety.
Smaller,64, never thought she'd have a chance to vote for a black candidate for president, and now that it's here, she said she's worried it could be her only chance.
"It's going to be very far and in between before we have another black man, female, that will get as high as Barack has got," she said. "And a lot of people don't agree with me but I really think that we have to take our opportunity right now to try to see if it's possible to get a black person as President of the United States."
Golden Thyme coffeeshop is right across the street from Bouquets by Carolyn, probably the central gathering spot for African-American movers and shakers in St. Paul. For many patrons, Obama getting elected should not only be possible but probable, given his credentials and abilities.
But, they can't hide their doubts or fears, or annoyance with a white reporter who asks whether they're voting for Obama because he's black. For Melvin Giles, it's more amusement than annoyance.
"I like to flip it, and just start asking white people are they voting for Obama because he's black or are they voting for him because of his policies," Giles said. "Are they voting for McCain because he's white, or are they voting for him because of his policy?"
Giles called Obama's coolness and poise under pressure his gift to Black America. Whenever the Illinois senator is confronted with what Giles considers untruths or smears during the campaign,
"He continues to rise," Giles said.
Obama's ability to rise above the fray, said Giles, sets an example for the rest of us.
"As a black man, living in America, it's helps me to rise, knowing that we're creating a better world and that people are generally good people, but they just need to be a little better people," he said.
For black parents, Golden Thyme customer Sasha Cotton said, the symbolic significance of an Obama presidency is obvious.
"Certainly as an African American mother of an African American boy, he offers an opportunity of that real dream of being in the White House for a young black boy," she said.
Cotton, 27, works with troubled youth. She said to be accepted, black people have to meet much higher-than-normal expectations in the workplace, no matter what they do. Which is why she said Obama getting elected comes with a risk for the black community.
"When black people do something you're riding on the shoulders of your race," she said. "So for him to get in the White House and not do well, to not meet and exceed expectations will have a reflection on black candidates in every element of politics and otherwise, henceforth."
Over at the Sports Dome, a hip hop clothing store in St. Paul, Barack Obama has a cheerleader in Elton Singleton, 34, but not just because of his race. Singleton's been working at the store for only a few months. He admitted he's made mistakes and has had a hard life, but he said he's convinced Obama will give the disadvantaged a lift.
"If you're struggling and this man can help you in any type of way that he can, you'd better get out and vote for him because that's the right thing to do," he said. "He's going to change America. There's going to be a change, so you have to get yourself prepared for it."
Singleton said it's Obama's policies that will bring about the change he's looking for, in terms of more jobs, cheaper housing, more accessible health care and better schools. Obama's race isn't giving the candidate a leg up with Singleton.
"Because if McCain had a heart like Obama got, then if he was talking right, then I would vote for him," he said. "Vice versa you know what I'm saying? So that color, it don't mean nothing."
Color means everything to Linda Taylor, 57, of Minneapolis. Taylor runs her own greeting card and invitation business at the Global Market on Lake Street. Having lived through the American Civil Rights Movement and racial unrest from the 1960s on, you'd think she'd be shocked by how far Obama has gotten in his presidential bid, but she said she's been expecting it all along.
"Well that's the hope that you have to have in the good lord," she said. "He made all of us. I truly truly believe that."
What excites Taylor the most about Obama in the White House is the boost she predicted he will give African Americans who've gotten off track.
"Maybe the guy that's sagging his pants might say, 'I'm going to pull my pants up today, this is not the way it should be,' " she said. "The little guy that's on the corner selling drugs, 'I'm not selling drugs. I'm going to go work, even if it's just six dollars an hour. I'm going to go back to school. I'm going to do something for myself and my family.' And that's how it escalates to just doing better things."
"It goes back to dignity," Taylor said. "It just does. It's just saying that 'wow, I've got something to look at now. I've got something to really look forward to, and I want to be an example, a good example for anyone I come in contact with, even for my own children. I'm a young father. I'm a young mother. I need to step up to the plate and do what I need to do."
Obama's African-American supporters all believe they need to exercise their franchise, and everyone MPR spoke with is predicting an enormous turnout. Some said the election outcome is so important they plan to take Nov. 5 off, so they can celebrate, or grieve.
- All Things Considered, 10/23/2008, 5:17 p.m.