Black Women Talk Barack
The other day, my daughter announced her support of Senator Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. I asked why, and she answered, "It would be awesome to have a woman President." (She is 8 years old.) When I asked why not Senator Barack Obama, she paused, a slight crease developing between her eyebrows:
"Oh, I don't know, Mom. I just think it would be better to have a woman President." With that, I said something encouraging about her growing interest in presidential politics but didn't press her on her choice.
My daughter's nascent political interest--and her stated preference for Clinton--appears to be influenced by her budding sense of girl power more than black power. In this respect her preference defies the new conventional wisdom: in the black community, post-civil rights era blacks go for Barack Obama, while old heads support Hillary Clinton.
The week of the New Hampshire primary, I contacted several African-Americans to sound them out on this. The one clear consensus was that black voters are pleasantly surprised to find themselves at a historic moment in which a window is open to elect a candidate who may be able to move the needle significantly on matters that for too long have been ignored. But my conversations also reflected a distinct generational divide, with some interesting contours.
From her home in Los Angeles, Tananarive Due, a novelist, expressed unwavering enthusiasm for Obama. Like me, she is in her early 40s and straddles the line between the baby boom and post-civil rights eras.
"This is like a big family squabble, only more painful," said Due, the daughter of 1960s civil rights activists John and Patricia Stephens Due. Tananarive, author with her mother of Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, decided to "come out" about her political views only after seeing Obama speak last May at the First AME Church at the edge of South Central Los Angeles. She was so moved, Due said, that she returned later to the church, got a videotape of Obama's speech and spent hours transcribing it. She described her abiding belief in his candidacy in a post on her blog, which made the rounds among black writers and journalists in the days after the New Hampshire primary.
Due is mindful, she said, of the high emotions that will likely play an important part in black voters' decisions. And as she sees it, for some black Americans fear is the biggest influence on that front--the feelings of self-doubt and the deep fears born of long, grim, generational memory. "When you have been beaten down for as long as blacks have been, it is hard not to be afraid," Due told me. "Afraid that voting for Obama will be a wasted vote. Afraid that someone will try to harm him or his family, the closer he gets."
That outlook has been reflected in news stories focusing on black voters in South Carolina, a state where as many as 50 percent of all voters expected to cast ballots in the January 26 Democratic primary will be African-American. Yet missing from the mainstream coverage is a full exploration of the "fear" factor that Due identified, and that I similarly contemplated after learning of my daughter's preferred Democratic candidate: the strong aversion that some blacks may have to the concept of risk in general and as it applies to Obama's candidacy in particular. While recent polls in South Carolina show that black voters now overwhelmingly support Obama, anecdotal evidence does seem to indicate that older blacks, particularly black women, support Clinton because they believe she is more "electable."
On the other hand, Patricia Stephens Due, 68, is an "older voter" with no fear: like her daughter, she supports Obama. "It is our time now. We have to take care of our own," said Due, who was a student organizer in the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s, from her home in Florida. "And this nonsense about Senator Obama not being 'black enough' is just that--nonsense. I know that some of us are afraid, and many of us carry the wounds of our past on the inside rather than on the outside," said Due, who was nearly blinded by a state trooper who hit her in the face with a tear gas canister at a civil rights rally. "I understand the fears, but we have to get over them. This candidate cannot prevail if we don't show our support."
Then there are black women who say they support Clinton's candidacy, not from fear but because they like the New York Senator's legislative and advocacy record. Victoria Rowell, a foster care advocate, writer and actress in Beverly Hills, is in her late 40s. The author of a memoir, The Women Who Raised Me, that describes her childhood and young adulthood in the foster care system, Rowell supports Clinton, she said, based on her life experience as a black woman who grew up "in the system." "My support of Hillary does not mean I don't think Barack is capable, only that I think Senator Clinton has the experience and track record of working on issues that are important to me," Rowell told me.
Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, said to me recently that he is skeptical of any attempt to describe in shorthand the influence of black voters' personal histories, and their generational memory, on their choice in the Democratic primary. Spence cautions that the archetypal "black woman voter" does not exist. Still, by his review of the poll data--information he admits can have its limitations--Spence believes it is probably accurate to say that the segments of black voters most likely to go for Hillary Clinton are older women and working-class women who hold fondly to the notion of bringing back President Bill Clinton.
Then he mentioned something that instantly, viscerally resonated with me, as the mother of an 8-year-old black girl and a 4-year-old black boy:
"If that voter is a black woman who is a bit younger, who is working hard to keep it together, and especially if she has sons, her support will be for Barack. Especially if she has sons," Spence said.
"Because, let's be real: the most at-risk population in America is not girls, black or white, and it certainly isn't white women. It is black boys, and the mothers of black boys are going to go all out for Barack Obama."