Tuesday, October 21, 2008

East Bay black voters hopeful, wary as Election Day approaches

BERKELEY — With the nation's economy in tatters and Barack Obama's lead in national polls solidifying, black voters are starting to rejoice over the possibility of an African-American in the White House.

But they are also wary of the so-called "Bradley effect," named after Tom Bradley, an African-American who ran for California governor in 1982 and lost to George Deukmejian after, analysts say, white voters who said they'd vote for the black candidate couldn't bring themselves to do so once in the booth.

"He's walking a tightrope," said Erin Algeo, a 38-year old museum curator from Oakland. "Will people judge him because he's a black guy, or on everything he does as a candidate? There's so much going on in the world. Look at all the hot spots, all the economic problems. There's so much besides race to vote on. People may make that choice (based on race) but they'd be fools to do so."

With a little more than two weeks to go before Election Day, most of the nearly two dozen African-Americans interviewed last week in downtown Berkeley expressed optimism that Obama will win, and pride that a black man could become the leader of the free world.

It is a transformed racial landscape of tolerance and reconciliation, they said that Obama promises to usher in, amid the prospects of a better shot in life for those who have been left behind during President Bush's administration.

But also palpable was a fear: that something could go Advertisementwrong in the election, such as another debacle in Florida or Ohio that snatches a victory away from Obama; that even if he gets elected, Obama would be unfairly judged as he inherits an economic crisis, or, unthinkably, become the target of assassins.

"I'm really worried about that because he's fixin' to make history," said Julion Nelson, a 20-year-old student and South Berkeley resident. "It's not like this country has never had assassinations of black leaders."

Alex Anderson, 18, of Richmond, said she has mixed feelings, saying she's "very excited" over the possibility of an Obama presidency, but she is "worried because of the atmosphere being created by Republicans," referring to the McCain campaign's attacks on Obama for his associations with William Ayers, who has confessed to domestic bombings as a member of the Vietnam War-era Weather Underground, and hostile reactions from Republican crowds at rallies for McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin.

"They're helping to inspire hate for Obama," Anderson said.

LaToya McDonald, a classmate of Anderson's at Berkeley City College, agreed.

"There's a strong possibility he might end up like Dr. Martin Luther King," said McDonald, 29, of Richmond. "Or the blame is going to be put on Obama because he can't clean up the mess that the Republican president made."

Anxieties aside, the central place Obama has taken in the American consciousness as he's pursued the nation's highest office has helped voters imagine a country that is more interested in harmony than war and people over profit, said Darien Kincaid, 35, of Berkeley.

"I was afraid to watch McCain so aggressively attack Obama — I was worried that people would say that's how we should project power," said Kincaid, a student at Berkeley City College. "But it was exciting to see that's not how Americans are seeing it, that McCain's notions of power don't appeal to us. There's something happening in the American consciousness that says we're redefining that notion. I'm watching Americans come to this notion that we're going to work together in a globally unified way."

The biggest, most long-term impact of an Obama presidency would be on the children, said Delores Spence, 57, a securities analyst for UC Berkeley of Alameda.

"That would put a new spin on the way African-American children see themselves," she said. "If you can see it, you can become it."

An Obama presidency will "encourage more blacks, especially black males, to push harder to attain their goals," said Lonnie Ross III, 17, of Pinole, who won't be able to vote but who plans to drive friends to the polls on Nov. 4. "If a black person can be president of the United States, they can do anything."

Charles Johnson, 28, unemployed, of Oakland, said he supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, but now he supports Obama, though not merely because he's black.

"What he represents is making things better," Johnson said. "We're all trying to get back to the way things were. We're all struggling in poverty. Too much money has been spent on the war. If it's going to bring change for this country, and everybody can get back to work and pay taxes, it's a good thing for our future."

Troy Romes, a 33-year old janitor/maintenance man of Oakland, said Obama "reflects hope for all cultures and creeds. That is the best thing that is happening in this country. It's the best time even in the worst time."

The reason Diamond Johnson, 20, of Richmond, knows Obama will win, she said, is that "he's so popular, everybody has an Obama T-shirt. Except me. I just have a button." Johnson, a cashier, said, "I'm just hoping he can help in any way, that everything will go better as far as the war and the economy goes."

Obama could tangibly change peoples' lives, said Ron Rogers, 23, of Richmond.

"It would give people a second chance," said Rogers, who is looking for work as a computer repairman. "It's inspirational how he puts himself out there. He shows a good example. He says things that make sense, makes me think to go back and recover my tracks, correct my mistakes. I have a more positive demeanor when I listen to him."

Others aren't sure that Obama could truly understand the needs of blacks, having been raised by a white mother and white grandparents in Hawaii, far from the urban experience of many blacks.

"He doesn't know where I'm coming from just because he's the same skin color," said Eric Green, 29, of Vallejo, who said he didn't expect to vote because he's a former felon. In California, however, ex-felons who have completed their parole are eligible to vote. "He's black in color, but he doesn't know the struggles of blacks."

Green's twin brother, Ei'on, said he plans to vote for Obama, though he, too, was skeptical Obama would bring blacks' concerns into the Oval Office.

For Wasswa Serwanga, a 32-year-old banker of Oakland, Obama "happens to be African-American." What matters, said Serwanga, a naturalized citizen from Uganda voting in his first election, is that he has proved he has a "steady hand" ready to steer the country in the right direction.

What runs through the mind of Julion Nelson, the 20-year-old South Berkeley resident, as he contemplates a possible Obama presidency, is "yes, we can. It gives me an adrenelin rush. And it makes me think that maybe we're not so coldhearted a nation after all."

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