2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Robin Acton
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
February 2, 2008


The women who spend long hours getting their hair braided in the battered vinyl chairs at Jazzy's Super Cuts on 125th Street talk about many things to pass the time.

Money and bills, for sure. Kids, sometimes. Men and their troubles, always.

And these days, they're talking politics.

"Most of the people I know want Barack Obama," said Cassandra Matthews, 37, a Democrat who can't wait to cast her ballot for the Illinois senator in Tuesday's New York primary. "I believe he can stop the war."

The men and women who live in cramped apartments and tenements along the graffiti-lined streets here, throughout the Bronx and in other heavily Democratic city neighborhoods finally have hope that a black man can make it to the Oval Office. For the first time, young people say they are taking an interest in politics and registering to vote because they believe their voice might be heard in Washington.

Many admit Obama will get their vote just because he's black. Others say they're fed up with Sen. Hillary Clinton and what they perceive as a party machine that delivers nothing but lip service. A few complain that their 15th District congressman, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, sold them out when he introduced Clinton at a campaign event prior to South Carolina's primary.

"He never asked us about it," Matthews said.

Rangel's constituents in the district that is 46 percent Hispanic and 37 percent black say he never asked them for their thoughts on the candidates before he endorsed the former first lady in her bid for the Democratic nomination. The congressman was unavailable for comment this week because he was "out of the office attending a Democratic Caucus meeting in Williamsburg," said his aide, Emile Milne.

"He supports Hillary Clinton. He always has," Milne said of Rangel, who has held the seat since 1970.

Some of Harlem's streets adjacent to the main thoroughfare, 125th Street, show signs of a renaissance with construction, advertisements for renovated housing and higher rents that point to neighborhood rebirth. But blocks away, boarded-up buildings, garbage-strewn vacant lots and gated playgrounds tell the story of a place that has struggled for decades with heavy crime rates, drug use and a reputation that sends tourists in the opposite direction.

Bill Clinton chose Harlem as the site of his New York office -- the top floor of 55 W. 125th St. -- after he left the presidency. Major League Baseball is considering a site for a building nearby.

The prestige that comes with the investment of such high-profile tenants, and what many here call a regentrification of the neighborhood, has led some residents to believe that better days are coming. Others worry they won't be able to afford them.

Obama can bring change here, said Tracy Thompson, 41, who works at her brother's clothing and leather accessories store, Connection One, a block away from the former president's office. Although she admires Bill Clinton and believes his wife had a lot to do with his political accomplishments, she's leaning toward Obama as her choice.

"He's like a new Martin Luther King, which is why I believe he has a multicultural crowd wherever he goes," said Thompson, who lives in the shadow of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

"He's not talking pro-black. He's talking everyone."

Brenda Saunders, 60, agreed, adding that she doesn't like the way the former first couple attack Obama. Although she voted for Bill, who is revered by Harlem's residents, she won't support Hillary, whom she described as a "phony."

"I also don't like what they've been saying lately, especially with what Bill Clinton said about Obama. There's been a lot of pettiness on his part, and it's two against one. You don't need two, you just need one good one," she insisted.

Although Obama might be the right man, it's the wrong time for him, according to Corwin Breeden, 44, who lives in Harlem at 139th Street.

Breeden works for a nonprofit, the Teams Housing Development Fund, and owns a restaurant, Harlem Wings and Waffles. In his free time, he volunteers for Clinton's campaign.

The nattily dressed black man took a break from his chicken and rice lunch Thursday to talk about his changing neighborhood and the upcoming primary. Although some of his friends and neighbors believe he should work for Obama solely on racial grounds, he believes he's supporting the right person.

"The issue isn't about race. The issue is, can he really win? It's an emotional vote," Breeden said. "The voters are seeing it as a pie in the sky, that we can finally get a black man elected.

"He doesn't have enough experience to take over the country's issues."

Shabazz Williams, 30, who divides his time between Harlem and Miami, will vote for Obama.

Williams, who wonders aloud whether the country will send a black man to Washington, said he's always paid attention to the issues when it comes to elections. The economy, the cost of living, the war, crime, health care -- it all should matter to everyone, he said.

"I want to know what's going on in the country," he said. "If you don't, why you living here?"


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