2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

A Caucus Essay

 

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Robin K. Magee
 

I just returned from the Democratic Caucus in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Obama.  In the room in which my precinct was gathered, the vote was 214 to 26 in favor of Obama.  (The split was similar for the gatherings of other precincts situated in other nearby classrooms.)  Caucus representation was about 90% white, 5-7% African American, and 1-2% Asian. There was a visible representation of recent African immigrants.  During the deliberations of one precinct, a Latino spoke. 
 
The venue was electric for Obama.  People were charged--ready for change—or, so the slogan went.  Cross-racial bonding was in full display.  There was hugging.  I saw a new kind of hope in the eyes of the brother who sat across the room from me—the only brother in the room.  He abruptly blurted out as my Congresswoman exited our room that he had come to prefer Obama after experiencing a late night epiphany in which he became concerned about what he perceived to be Hillary's negative campaign tactics.  He explained that to me in those words later when I asked him for clarification. 
 
What he actually said in the precinct room was "I had to wonder about a person who has to stand on another's head to feel taller."  When he ended his comments somewhat self-satisfied, I saw a look of bewilderment rise over the mostly white faces.  The reflexive look of bewilderment changed to one of embarrassment for most.  For the few whites who appear to know to attribute the brother’s action personally—rather than to label it a curious “black thing,” a look of amusement followed the one of bewilderment.  Ultimately, all decided to let the comment waffle off into oblivion rather than ask for clarification.  It sounded to them that he was speaking in favor of Obama--and that was . . . enough. 
 
The brother’s declaration sounded close enough to something I might have heard one of my preacher uncles say that I thought to distinguish him from the so many psychologically teetering people one can encounter at intensely political events.  At any rate, I was going to talk to him regardless.  (At a candidate's victory party last year, a person with whom I had once organized explained to me that she had cracked the Leonard Peltier and was to free him by year-end.  Drugs, I think.) 
 
The brother identified himself as a Vietnam Vet--now on the right track--and explained that he really was motivated because "these white people are now ready for change."  In response to my question, “what was he expecting for himself from the kind of change for which he thought these white people were ready,” the brother explained, "Black people are going to have to learn to do for themselves. Obama is going to hold the black man accountable to do for himself."   I found the brother lucid.
 
Walking out the Obama-electric venue, I recalled the circumstance in which I felt an even higher level of cross-racial jubilation.  It was at the memorial service for Paul Wellstone.  It was a spiritual experience.  Everyone was charged.  Everyone was ready to move forward.  Everyone was ready to fight the good fight. 
 
However, not before the night was out, these Democrats proved that they did not have enough fight in them to protect the sanctity of the memorial service.  Wellstone's seat was lost to a Republican. 
 
As I remembered the composition of the gathering at the precinct, I became concerned about a reoccurrence of the Wellstone result.  The Caucus participants were good people of good intentions—Minnesota progressives.  Nevertheless, I wondered about counting on them to push for meaningful change. 
 
I wondered too if the notions of change held by pro-Obama whites related to race at all.  Would the hope of racial reconciliation and equality harbored by so many Obama-supporting people of color wither quickly after the primaries—or later in the days following an Obama election?  Were Obama supporters sharing the same hope—looking for the same change—sharing the same agenda?  Were African Americans to get a good return on their Obama investment?  Were they getting a symbol while others would receive a meaningful change?
 
I felt I was making myself crazy with this litany of seemingly unanswerable questions as I walked out into the cold Minnesota winter, up the sidewalk past the Caucus building,  along the walkway past the MLK Center—and then home.  I live within blocks of the Caucus venue. 
 
My neighborhood had been a predominately-black neighborhood.  Now, it is predominately white---gentrified. 
 
I could only guess at the answers to my questions.  I, however, felt confident that notwithstanding--on tomorrow so many of those enthusiastic Obama supporters who work or may have been called to participate in the Minnesota criminal justice system would continue to make decisions that will perpetuate the second worse racial disparities in the country.
 

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