Are We Seeing a Racial Shift in the South?
On Saturday, January 26, the Democrats will hold their primary in South Carolina. Last weekend, a week before the primary, and the day of the Republican primary, I was in South Carolina. Because of the snowstorm in Atlanta I was encouraged to stay in the state for a couple of days. No problem!!! I used the time as an excuse to ask questions about the upcoming Democratic primary.
There is the assumption that Black South Carolinians will rush to the polls to vote for Barack Obama. I wanted to explore and basically discuss politics in South Carolina with whites and blacks. This was, of course, before the Democratic debates in Myrtle Beach on Monday, January 18.
On Friday night, the day before the Republican primary, I was in Columbia. Filled with an assortment of eclectic international restaurants and down-home pubs, Five Points in Columbia is the place to be on the weekends. The area is down the street from the University of South Carolina. After kicking myself for spending eight dollars for a small unsubstantial salad in the fancy restaurant in the area, I went to one of the seedy pubs close by. A guitar player was blaring away and it was hard to hear, much less talk, but I tried in any case.
The pub was filled with white youth wearing an assortment of earrings, red dyed hair and smoking cigarettes. There was one Black youth in the place. I sat at the bar and talked briefly with the bartender. He was in his 20’s, white and a University student in psychology. I asked if he was planning to vote in the Democratic primary. He said he was and that he supported Barack Obama. "I like his policies" he said. "My generation in South Carolina is not as racist as our parents and grandparents." That’s about all I could get out of him as he needed to get back to work.
By Saturday night I was in Charleston and went to what some describe as the "Cheers" pub in the fair city. It’s called "Vickery’s" on Beaufain Street. The place was crowded with mostly whites but some Blacks as well. I sat at the bar and started talking with everyone next to me. I was the interloper. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. We were all sitting close to the door so these guys could quickly go outside for a cigarette. To my left was "Paul". He was white, in his late 50’s or early 60’s, a restaurant manager and had been in Charleston for some 25 years. He was originally from the northeast. He told me he had attended the original Woodstock concert in 1969. He’d always voted Republican and would like to have seen Mitt Romney win the primary in South Carolina. While talking with him his cell phone rang. It was his brother who was working in the hotel where McCain was to celebrate his win. The brother apparently was hoping McCain would lose so he could go home early.
Paul told me that the election he was most proud of was voting for Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. (I never understand why Reagan seems to creep into discussions with Republicans.) I asked him why. He said Reagan was what was needed at the time. He was articulate, confident, with movie star qualities, even though, he said, he wasn’t much of a movie star, and that his "trickle down" economic policies worked. "It took a long time," he chuckled, "but they did trickle down." I, of course, was wondering what kind of a fantasy world this guy was in! Where resources from the Reagan era tricked down seems to be directly into the rather expanded pockets of corporate America’s CEO’s.
Paul then proceeded to tell me that George W. Bush had ruined it all. He said that George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should be in jail for their war mongering and destroying the economy; that the troops should come home; that the US should stop being so arrogant; and that instead there should be policies that are respectful of other countries and cultures. Given those views I wondered why Paul would support Romney who has professed an interest in torture and an expanded war in the Middle East!
Next to Paul was Henry Cauthen, in his 70’s, sitting there sipping what looked like whiskey. He volunteered his name and said his father had been a well-known journalist in South Carolina. He didn’t tell me his own profession.
Born and bred in Charleston, Henry, I gathered, liked coming to Vickery’s for the diversity of people he would meet in terms of race and profession. He was retired. He gardened. He said that impatiens were his favorite flowers. When I asked him if he was from South Carolina, he said "No, I’m not from South Carolina, I’m from Charleston." I looked at him rather perplexed and he said, "Charleston is a city-state. It’s unique in South Carolina and in the country." Other kindred city-states in the country, according to Henry, that have an independent and unique mind and culture of their own were San Francisco and New Orleans. I’m inclined to agree with Henry on this point.
Henry wanted McCain to win the Republican primary (which he did). When asked who would win the Democratic primary, Henry said, without hesitation "Obama! Black folks in South Carolina will vote for Obama. It’ a given." The white fellow sitting to my right said that ultimately John Edwards would be the Democratic candidate and neither Obama nor Clinton would be his running mate. "America’s not ready for a Black president or a woman president," he said.
By Sunday I was in Beaufort, South Carolina close to the Sea Islands such as the relatively well known St. Helena’s Island, Fripp Island, and Paris Island, which is the home of the Marine training base (actually there are about 100 Sea Islands along the eastern coast from South Carolina to Florida). St. Helena is the home of the Penn Center, which was created by the Quakers just after the Civil War to educate freed slaves. It is now independently owned as a non-profit and one of its programs is devoted to working with Black farmers. Most of the farmers on the islands are vegetable producers. Martin Luther King, Jr. would hold meetings at the Penn Center as it was one of the few places in the South that would allow integrated gatherings.
The South Carolina Sea Islands are also home to the Gullah people (sometimes called Geechee), who are descendants of slaves from West Africa. They speak a distinct Creole language and once a year hold the Gullah festival.
I was hoping to talk with some of the Black farmers in the area but it was Sunday and just before the King holiday so folks were at church or at home. I did find a few folks to talk with briefly. One was a Black farmer on St. Helena’s Island who was sitting in his truck outside a gas station. He said he was also in construction. I asked him if he was going to vote in the Democratic primary. He said he would. "Who are you supporting?" I asked. He was not sure, but was opting for Hillary Clinton. "I’m looking for experience," he said. "We need someone who can bring jobs to our area and Hillary has experience." I asked him if he thought Obama could bring jobs as well. He said, "Maybe, but I’m not sure."
By the afternoon I was on Fripp Island at the Johnson Creek Tavern. The restaurant is surrounded by what the locals call the flat marshes, which are miles of beautiful flat marshlands. There were no Black customers in the restaurant. I sat next to a white fellow who was a retired shrimper, after 27 years in the business. He told me his name was Emmett Paul. His boat was called the "Tiderunner." He sat next to his colleague who had been in the shrimping business with him and, being out of the shrimping business since 2005, was soon moving to California.
It was their shrimp boat, they told me, which had been used in the film "The Prince of Tides" with Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte. They proudly showed me the poster of the film depicting their boat. It hung on the wall by the restaurant entrance. They told me they had to give up on the shrimping business because of imports from China. "The government doesn’t care about our business. They’re letting China get away with unfair trade practices by flooding our market with shrimp that has destroyed us. I can’t even sell my boat."
When asked about the elections, his shrimping buddy (and yes, his name was Bubba) said that "whites in South Carolina will always be Republican and Blacks will be Democrats. Obama will win in South Carolina because Blacks will vote for him."
Then he wanted me to go outside with him to see the sunset over the flat marsh. "For years," he said, "I’ve seen these beautiful sunsets over the marsh. There’s nothing like them."
Claiming that their vote wouldn’t make a difference, neither of these shrimping fellows was going to vote in the 2008 primaries or elections.
Later that night when I was looking for a place to stay in Beaufort I talked briefly with a 30 something Black motel clerk. She was from California and her husband was in the Marines. I asked if she was going to vote in the Democratic primary. She said she wouldn’t because she was "discouraged after the 2000 election in Florida when the votes were stolen. So what’s the point of voting?" She told me her husband would vote for Obama, however, as he told her that he wanted a "strong Black man in the White House."
She told me that her grandmother and her parents in California supported Hillary, because they "really" wanted a woman as President. She seemed to agree with them.
On Monday morning, the King Holiday, before leaving South Carolina for Atlanta, I talked with a Black truck driver in the motel breakfast area. He told me he was from Beaufort and had been in the military for years in what he called the All Army Basketball Team. He traveled with the army to Russia, Egypt, Europe, and Asia and was now in his 60’s. I asked about the Democratic Primary. He would be voting, but was not sure whom to support and like the Black farmer above was leaning toward Clinton. "We need to end this Iraq war," he said "and I’m not sure who can do that." He expressed concern that Obama seemed to change his opinions too readily and was not consistent.
My sample of voters or potential voters was small and being a white female asking Blacks in the rural South questions about politics can lead to suspicions, responses can be constrained. Unfortunately I also talked with too many males. As an interviewer I’m also careful and don’t generally use names of those in the rural areas. But the results were not surprising.
My experience in Atlanta is that the white working class, like the shrimpers, is among the most disenfranchised. I’ve had them tell me "I’ll just leave that to God." That description doesn’t totally fit the shrimpers, and perhaps they are instead among the middle class whites who are threatened in this global economy. But it’s as if they’ve been left behind, abused by global trade and like many feel helpless in the midst of it all. Actually the young black female hotel clerk and the shrimpers have issues in common in terms of voter alienation as do the shrimpers and the black farmer in economic challenges. They should get together.
Regarding race, whites, of course, generally vote for someone because they are white. Yet whites tend to have stereotypic views of Blacks who, they say, regardless, will vote for a candidate because of race and be critical of blacks for doing this but not of themselves. The young white male bartender in Columbia who supported Obama is different in this scenario, and this is much like the support Obama received from youth and white males in Iowa and elsewhere. This is different in a US racial context. It’s also true that if white males support a candidate, any candidate, you best be wary. Conversely, it will be interesting to see if there is Black support for Clinton or Edwards in South Carolina.
There was another difference here. I generally expect Southern whites to speak disdainfully of blacks who, as a group, are expected to demonstrate their electoral power. Like, who the heck do they think they are? That didn’t happen with my small sample from the elite in Charleston to the shrimpers on Fripp Island. They might not like it, but it was not expressed disdainfully in body language or in verbal expressions. It appeared to be understood that this was simply a reality. This is also different. It seems a shift in mindset.
Are we seeing a change in America? Perhaps. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 there was understandably a rush by Black voters to elect Blacks into political positions across the South and the country. When the incredible Harold Washington became the first Black mayor of Chicago in 1983 I’ve had Black friends tell me that whites in the city treated them differently or noticed them for first time. The power agenda had shifted! In the 1980’s decade, however, I started hearing from Blacks that rather than voting for someone because they were Black they realized they needed to look at the issues supported by the candidates. That seems to be exactly what my small sample of Black South Carolinians was doing. But maybe there’s a change in white attitudes as well. I’m not sure. There’s a lot to consider. We’ll see what happens in the primary.
HEATHER GRAY produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.