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

Obama gives blacks hope that change is in the wind


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2/25/08 Rec. N. N.J. A01


There is a sense among many African-Americans in North Jersey that Barack Obama's political success means the country's racial outlook has changed since Jesse Jackson's campaigns failed to attract widespread support in the 1980s.

"There is such a level of frustration about what's happening to our country that it's created this overwhelming desire for change regardless of the candidate's color," said College of New Jersey Professor Kim Pearson, who teaches in the English and African-American studies department.

But Obama's momentum hasn't always translated into an easy decision for African-Americans about whom to support.

Akbar Anderson of Hackensack said he's leaning toward rooting for Obama to get the Democratic nomination for president. The 28-year-old African-American said he feels pressure to support the first black front-runner in history, but is weighing more than race when deciding who deserves a shot at the White House.

"I still don't know who to vote for," Anderson said, saying he also liked Hillary Clinton's experience and toughness. "It's good to ask myself, do I want to vote for a man just because he's black, or because he has the right issues?"

Some said they did not want race to overshadow the candidates' stances.

"I think people are voting for the wrong cause right about now," said Ty Whiteside, 25, of Englewood. "They see it as history: the first black man, or the first woman. ... We're looking at the wrong things."

Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, but did not generate the enthusiasm that Obama has during this primary season.

In 1988, Jackson lost New Jersey's Democratic primary by a 2 to 1 margin to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the party's eventual nominee. But Jackson beat Dukakis decidedly in areas with a large black population like Paterson, Newark and Englewood.

On Super Tuesday 2008, the race was much closer, and more than a few white suburbanites wore Obama buttons to the polls. The Illinois senator got 44 percent of New Jersey's vote compared with Clinton's 54 percent. Since then, Obama has won 11 straight Democratic contests. Clinton and Obama are tied among likely Democratic voters in Texas, and Obama is closing in on Clinton's lead in Ohio heading into those March 4 primaries, according to recent ABC News/Washington Post polls.

A different tone

Political experts say that Obama's success is partly because of the different tone of the two campaigns.

"Jackson ran as a black candidate and Obama is running as a candidate who happens to be black," said Gerald Pomper, a professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University. "Jackson made his campaign around race. Obama is not."

But the public has also changed since Jackson's days, experts said.

"America is growing up. She is living up to her own principles and ideals," said the Rev. Gregory Jackson, senior pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack.

Black women, in particular, said their loyalties have been divided between propelling a woman or a black man to the White House. Kena Sage of Hackensack said she thought at first that a woman would make a better peacemaker and place a higher priority on issues she cares about, such as health care.

"I think a lot of African-American women are torn. A lot of us as women, we feel like, with all the drama that's gone on, a woman could make it better," she said.

But Obama's speeches convinced Sage that he was the better candidate.

"I chose both of them with my head," she said. "But something about Obama touched my heart."

Not everyone reached the same conclusion. Ahmed Mohammed, 41, owns a clothing store in Paterson. He appreciates the historic importance of the Obama campaign, but voted for Clinton in the primary.

"He'd make the black community feel like they can do it if they work very hard," Mohammed said. "But Bill was good, and he's going to support her. They did a lot of good things for this country."

Some voters said they worry that, despite all the rhetoric, not enough has changed for a black president to get a fair shake.

"I feel like Obama will be a target," said Kelli Cooper, 34, of Teaneck, saying that she worried for his safety if elected. "People think like that, and it's terrible."

Others are optimistic that a win for Obama would prompt further changes in the way people think about black politicians.

"I hope he has coattails that will carry younger, fresher politicians who can bring new energy to Paterson, Newark and other places," said Maxim Thorne, a Paterson attorney who has worked on Obama's campaign. "It would show in New Jersey that African-Americans cannot only compete for local office, but statewide office."

Still others wish that race weren't even part of the conversation.

"I hope they don't try to use this as a tool to split the blacks and the whites," said Rickie Stancil, 51, of Paterson. "Nobody's making it into a race card thing yet, and I hope they don't. He's young, and he's ambitious, and that's it."


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