Obama’s Bid Turns Focus On Class Split Among Blacks
By: Wall Street Journal
By JONATHAN KAUFMAN
ELGIN, S.C. — Briana Parker, a 17-year-old African-American, drives her Honda every Wednesday from her suburban home here to the local Barack Obama headquarters to work the phone banks. Already accepted at six colleges, the high-school senior finds Mr. Obama an inspiration. “He reminds me that I can go and do things that others said I couldn’t do,” says Ms. Parker, who plans to double major at college and become a physical therapist.
Seventeen miles and a world away, Malcolm Davis, 25, waits outside his parole office in Columbia, S.C. Like 13% of all black men — 1.4 million in total — he can’t vote because he lives in a state that disenfranchises people convicted of certain felonies. He scoffs at Mr. Obama’s message of hope and change. “He didn’t grow up the way I grew up — Mom smoking crack, Daddy smoking crack. It doesn’t matter what I think. Just because a black man is running for president doesn’t mean it’s going to change things.”
Even as Mr. Obama is promising to bring America together, his candidacy is casting new light on the mounting class divide in the black community — and the debate among blacks about how to get ahead. The expanding black middle class — accounting for about 40% of the black population — see in Mr. Obama a validation of the choices they have made: attending largely white colleges, working in predominantly white companies and government offices, climbing up the ladder of American success.
For African-Americans living in the inner city — where most children are being raised by single mothers, male unemployment in some cities tops 50% and 40% of young black men are either in jail, awaiting trial or on probation — the view of Mr. Obama is much more skeptical. Black teenagers mock Mr. Obama as a “Halfrican” and a “50-percenter” for his biracial background; his mother is white, his Kenyan-born father was black. A recent special on Mr. Obama on Black Entertainment Television, the most popular station among inner-city blacks, was titled, “Obama: What’s in It for Us?”
Wide Disparity of Support
A poll this fall by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, shows the wide disparity of support for Mr. Obama among blacks. While 75% of blacks who went to college had a favorable or very favorable view of the candidate — rising to 88% among blacks who went to graduate or professional school — support dipped to 62% among those with just a high-school degree and to 42% among blacks who haven’t finished high school. A similar pattern shows up as income levels fall among blacks. And while 83% of blacks employed full time had a favorable view of Mr. Obama, just 55% of unemployed blacks did.
The black vote is key to Mr. Obama in South Carolina where he needs a victory this Saturday following defeat in New Hampshire and a mixed result in Nevada where he lost the caucus vote by 51% to 45% but won one more delegate than New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. His support among blacks across the country is swelling as he proves himself a formidable challenger to Mrs. Clinton, who initially rallied black support because of her and her husband’s support of black issues. Despite losing in Nevada, Mr. Obama won about 83% of the black vote, according to exit polls. A CNN poll released last week showed Mr. Obama with almost 60% support among black voters across the U.S., compared with 31% for Mrs. Clinton. Here in South Carolina, several polls have shown Mr. Obama leading Mrs. Clinton by about 8% overall with wide leads among black voters.
Many poor blacks don’t vote, so their skepticism likely won’t hurt Mr. Obama’s candidacy. But Mr. Obama’s challenge goes beyond politics: Can he unite his own community — and, if elected president, inspire and uplift African-Americans of all classes?
Many of the features that whites find most appealing about Mr. Obama — his mixed-race background, cosmopolitan upbringing, the ease with which he moves among whites — stir unease among some blacks. The debate among blacks about Mr. Obama has become unusually intimate, including discussions about the color of his wife’s skin.
“People say, ‘How can this guy, black as he may be, relate to me?’” says Eric Holder, former deputy attorney general who is black and an Obama adviser. “But as people hear his story and the choices he has made throughout his life, they will understand that he not only looks like them but that there is a natural connection.”
Mr. Obama’s candidacy comes amid an intensifying argument in the black community about what it means to be black in America and how blacks succeed. A survey this past fall by Pew Research found that 60% of blacks say the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade — with “values” defined as “things that people view as important or their general way of thinking.” Almost 40% of blacks say that the values of poor and middle-class blacks have diverged so much that blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race. Middle class is commonly defined as households making between $40,000 and $100,000 a year.
Bill Cosby, now ranked by blacks as one of the people they admire most, according to the Pew Research survey, has been traveling across the country, visiting black churches and organizations, lacerating poor black parents: “I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit [prison garb]. Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn’t know that he had a pistol? And where is his father?”
“You know how whites used to clutch their purses in the elevator whenever a black teenager stepped in,” says Natalie Brown, who works with poor blacks here through the local Urban League. “Now blacks do it, too.”
Mr. Obama rarely discusses race on the campaign trail though he occasionally talks about seeing teenagers in Chicago hanging out on street corners who “look like me.” His policy prescriptions for the inner city are similar to those of former Sen. John Edwards and Mrs. Clinton, including more money for jobs and education and reforming the criminal-justice system to eliminate the discrepancy in sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine, used more by blacks, and powdered cocaine, used more by whites.
But Mr. Obama is likely to address inner-city issues more directly as the primaries now move to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states. Blacks make up 15% or more of the Democratic primary vote in many of those states, including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia, New York and Missouri.
“Imagine having a president who was raised like I was by a single mom on food stamps,” Mr. Obama declared during a recent rally before blacks in South Carolina. “Imagine having a president who can go into black neighborhoods and give young men and women someone to look up to.”
‘We Are Breaking Apart’
Class has divided American blacks ever since slave owners divided blacks into field slaves and more favored house slaves and interracial relationships left some blacks with lighter skin. Lloyd Kinnitt, a retired cook who grew up in Georgia and now lives in Boston, recalls his mother looking askance at some black neighbors and telling him: “They may be my color but they’re not my kind.”
Such class distinctions are true among white Americans and ethnic groups as well; whites in South Carolina talk about rednecks and “trailer trash.” But the debate over class in the black community has been particularly harsh in recent decades because while many, like Mr. Obama, have seen incomes and opportunities grow, others, even in the same families, have slipped further and further behind.
Mr. Obama himself wrote about this dilemma in his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” published before he entered politics. Describing a confrontation with some black teenagers in a car in a poor part of Chicago where he was working as a community organizer, Mr. Obama described the fear and alienation he felt: “As much as I might tell myself otherwise, we are breaking apart these boys and me, into different tribes, speaking a different tongue, living by a different code.”
Some poor blacks worry that whites will look at Mr. Obama’s success and conclude that the “system” works — that if Mr. Obama can succeed the government doesn’t need to provide further programs for poor blacks in the inner cities.
“When he says, there is no white America, there is no black America — well, there is,” says Ronald Peder, a black activist and writer in Boston. “If he really believes in all this magic about change in America — well, I don’t feel anything is going to change in black America.”
“I don’t see anyone campaigning to people in the inner city” says Clifton Tobias, a warehouse worker at United Parcel Service here in Columbia. “Their campaigns are directed to whites and the suburbs, not people who are poor and black.”
It’s not just politicians who are leaving poor blacks behind, many blacks say, but the middle class as well. “It’s a divide,” says Herbert Tolliver, who runs a Columbia barbershop that draws in poor young black men as well as the middle class. “Oftentimes we don’t want to admit it but we don’t reach back and pull those up behind us like we should.”
One of the things that many poor and middle-class blacks say they like best about Mr. Obama is that his wife, Michelle, who attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, is dark-skinned. Color has long been a sensitive subject in the black community, with men and women of lighter skin seen as having higher status.
Rev. Eugene Rivers, who works in Boston’s poor black neighborhoods, says he was in his local barbershop last week “and there was a magazine with photos of Obama and his family. Someone held up the picture of him hugging his wife and the guys all started saying, ‘She’s a dark sister.’”
“Many of our male celebrities, sports figures, they marry white women or light-skinned wives,” says Darnell Cooper, a laborer in Columbia, S.C. “We all see that on television. But you turn on the TV and you see Michelle Obama and she looks black. I can identify with her.” He laughs. “I can tell you this: He would have a lot less votes if his wife were light-skinned or white.”
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who taught both Barack and Michelle Obama in law school, says, “I always tell Barack, ‘You married up.’ Michelle went to the best schools but she never lost sight that she is in a minority — a black woman in America. That resonates with people and makes them see Obama in a very different light.”
If Mr. Obama is greeted with some skepticism in poor black communities, the mood among the middle class is fervent, especially in families that identify with Mr. Obama’s struggles and choices.
“He is a living example of how doing the right thing and getting an education and striving is possible without your having to give up your identity,” says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a prominent black psychiatrist in Boston.
“When I was 5 years old, I said I was going to be president,” says David Thomas, a black dean at Harvard Business School who grew up in the 1960s. “By the time I was 7, I said I would be the first black president because I knew what color meant. By the time I was 9, I said I’ll be a lawyer because I knew that black people don’t become president.”
Last month, at Christmas with relatives in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Thomas watched as two young cousins, 4 and 6, argued with each other about who would become president first. “I don’t think by the time they turn 9 they will have changed their minds,” he says.
Volunteering for Mr. Obama
Anita Parker, Briana Parker’s mother, says she initially backed Hillary Clinton. She became more interested in Mr. Obama when her daughter began volunteering for him. Soon she was volunteering as well, and bringing along her 13-year-old son, Bryce.
Ms. Parker, a school administrator, says she likes the way Mr. Obama has reached out to whites as well as blacks. “Obama is not just campaigning with one group in mind, he is truly interested in helping everybody,” she says. Two years ago, Ms. Parker moved her family from Beaufort, S.C., to Elgin, a suburb northeast of Columbia, in part to raise her children in a mixed-race community; the school her children now attend is about 60% black. The family rents a home in a well-to-do subdivision where houses sell for between $100,000 and $300,000.
Back in Beaufort, where Ms. Parker lived in a less affluent and predominately black community, she says she worked hard to make sure her children spoke standard English rather than the rural dialect or street slang that many of their classmates used. Her son, Bryce, was in first grade when she recalls his teacher asking her: “Where is he from? He doesn’t talk like us.”
The children say there is less criticism from other blacks now because many of the black and other students at their schools share the same goals. Briana has recruited two of her African-American classmates, also college-bound seniors, to volunteer for Mr. Obama. One plans to be a physical therapist like her; the other a heart surgeon.
“Even if he doesn’t win, he shows us that we can do just as much or even more,” says Briana. “We can get to the level we are trying to get to — the Bill Gates level, the Oprah level.”
“Obama has the same kind of hope for his children and focus and determination that I do,” says her mother. “The fact that he has gotten this far means maybe the minds of Americans have opened more than I thought.”
Write to Jonathan Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org
* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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