South Carolina: Inside the 'Black Primary'
You couldn't blame Barack Obama for feeling all biblical on that second Sunday in December. There he was, emerging triumphantly from the same tunnel where the Gamecocks football team spills out on Saturdays, under the warm blue sky of an afternoon that felt miraculously like spring, amid the foot-stomps and hollered blessings of the biggest campaign crowd of the year, with Oprah Herself hallooing above the din, "Bar-ack O-bam-a! Bar-ack O-bam-a!" If the skies had suddenly cracked open above Williams-Brice Stadium and God's voice boomed down "Vote for Barack" while a heavenly choir belted out "Oh Happy Day," it would have seemed like just another part of the show. Right here in Obama's must-win early primary state, where a new poll was showing him in a statistical dead heat with Hillary Clinton. Right here with the very people--mostly African-Americans and mostly women--who have given the Man from Audacity the roughest going-over of his political life. And still are.
"I am so grateful to be here today," Obama beamed, soaking up the adulation and sliding into dialect. "Givin' all praise and honor to Gahd. Look at the day that the Lord has made. I would be blessed even if I was in Chicago, but I don't mind being in seventy-degree weather." As the 29,000 cheered, he cut in, chuckling his rich chuckle: "Michelle said, 'Praise the Lawd!' It's been cooold up in Chicago!"
For most of 2007 Obama's been feeling a chill down here, too. With African-Americans likely to make up a majority of primary voters on the Democratic side, South Carolina's contest is as close to a "black primary" as we're going to get in 2008--the only time in the entire campaign, almost certainly, when Democrats will be fighting all-out for African-American votes. Clinton's support among African-Americans, largely thanks to her husband's popularity, proved surprisingly strong at first, as did her smooth, state-of-the-art machine politics; as late as September, a CNN poll gave her a stunning 57 percent of the black vote here, to Obama's paltry 33. That would deal a death blow to Obama's chances, not only here but in the February 5 primaries, especially in Alabama and Georgia, where large numbers of black voters are weighing their choices--and watching South Carolina.
But while the contest here has been widely portrayed as a Clinton-Obama battle for black votes--especially those of black women reportedly torn between their enthusiasm for electing a sister versus a brother--the real focus, from the get-go, has been relentlessly on Obama. In a state where the Rev. Jesse Jackson's wildly successful 1988 uprising still stands as a high-water mark for black political aspirations, Obama's cool style and post-civil-rights rhetoric went over like a lead balloon in the early months of the campaign. The trouble was epitomized by a speech he gave to the legislative black caucus in April, where he offered his joking opinion that "a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing garbage out of their cars." To folks like Kevin Alexander Gray, who ran Jackson's campaign here, this smacked not of fresh thinking but of "the oldest racial stereotypes. Translation: black people are dirty and lazy." Obama's middle-of-the-aisle message and delivery kept reinforcing black South Carolinians' doubts about whether he was sufficiently one of them. "I've heard people say, and I've probably said it myself, 'He's a white boy,'" says Gray. "Or he's what some working-class black people perceive as a middle-class Negro. Anyway, let's face it: you don't get a revolution from Harvard."
The tide began to turn late last summer, when Obama and his surrogates were recasting his image from that of brainy harbinger of a new "colorblind" politics to latter-day extension of the civil rights movement. The wonk became a kind of messiah lite, mixing down-home, preacherly populism into his message and proclaiming, "I'm running because of what Dr. King calls 'the fierce urgency of now.'" Black voters' qualms were recast, too, as sad examples of what Michelle Obama, speaking in Anderson in September, called "that veil of impossibility that keeps us down and keeps our children down...the bitter legacy of racism and discrimination and oppression in this country." The only proper response being "to dig deep in our souls, confront our own self-doubt and recognize that our destiny is in our hands."
Or, more to the point, in the hands of Brother Barack. "You know," Oprah said as she introduced him in Columbia, "Dr. King dreamed the dream. But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality."
Many of the folks who came out to cheer their man had clearly gotten the message. "I believe anything is possible," said Obama volunteer Josie Barton. "If you say that it's not going to happen, and don't do anything about it, then nothing will change. You have to step up to the plate. Words without works is dead." But below the glinty facade of Obama's blessed day, the doubts had hardly been shaken off. "I've heard a lot of black people saying they don't want to vote for Barack," Barton's daughter Michelle told me, "because they don't believe it would make a difference. They feel that even if a lot of white people voted for him, somebody in a higher-up position would still find a way for him not to win." Her sister and a friend, both fellow Obama volunteers, nodded their heads, "Yeah. Yeah."
But will white people vote for him in the first place? I asked. "No," they all answered emphatically.
The South Carolina campaign has opened a unique window into the fractured state of black politics in twenty-first-century America--a gumbo of bleak cynicism, wary pragmatism, frustrated progressive aspirations and messianic longings. It has been, for black voters and candidates alike, one long, extended soul search. And it ain't over yet.