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Conversations with Georgia Voters

It’s said there are two Georgia’s ­ Atlanta and the rest of Georgia. Atlanta is the state’s capitol and is unique in any number of ways. As the “rest of Georgia” has followed the other Southern states in switching to the Republican Party, Atlanta has been and remains a concentrated Democratic bastion and of both blacks and whites. It has a majority of Blacks (61%). Barack Obama will likely win in Atlanta’s Super Tuesday race but there’s not a consensus among Black voters. White democrats seem to like Obama as well.

Since 1974 when Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of the city, Atlanta was been considered a mecca for aspiring black leaders to have a taste of living in a major American city under black leadership. Jackson willingly mentored this hopeful and aspiring black leadership throughout his long and distinguished career. Every subsequent mayor of the city since 1974 has been black. No white contender has successfully challenged this. Today’s Atlanta mayor is Shirley Franklin who is black and also the first female mayor of the city. The city’s congressional representation is also black.

Atlanta was home to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the city is filled with King’s followers and institutions built by him and/or his family such as the King Center and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Civil Rights veterans the likes of Andrew Young, U.S. Congressman John Lewis, and Reverend Joseph Lowery are spokesmen on all the various civil rights and national/international issues.

Atlanta also houses the country’s largest consolidation of black colleges, which includes Morehouse and Spelman. Dr. King graduated from Morehouse as did many other noted black male leaders in the country. Spelman, the woman’s college, has  graduated noted black female leaders. It is the alma mater, for one, of Marian Wright Edelman, who is renowned and respected for her leadership and untiring advocacy for children as director of the Children’s Defense Fund that Hillary Clinton has worked with and supported for years.

This is the way it breaks down on the Super Tuesday election: Andrew Young and John Lewis are supporting Hillary Clinton and Reverend Lowery is a strong Barack Obama supporter.

Getting to the substance of this election or the reasons why someone might vote for Clinton or Obama is difficult. Where on earth is the discussion about issues? This seems sadly lacking.

A retired white psychologist I met the other day while drinking coffee at Starbucks close to Emory University shared her thoughts about the candidates. She and her husband, a retired scientist from the Center for Disease Control, were reading the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.  “I am thrilled about Barack Obama,” she said. “I like his presence, the way he hugs his wife, the way he talks using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. He’s inclusive. On the other hand I don’t see Hillary hugging Bill or touching people enough and she says ‘I’ too much. I don’t think she’s sexy enough.”

I guess this is what you might expect from a psychologist. I admit to being rather stunned by this assessment of the candidates. Are we looking for a sexy president, someone who touches and hugs people? Who knows!

Then I met with a white friend who’s a Ph.D. and teaches at one of the local Universities. She was so excited about Obama and has given him financial support. “I am tired of the black/white scenario in America. I’m pleased that Barrack has a white mother and a black father. He’s of a mixed race. This is important and changes the landscape.”

“Have you looked at his policies?” I asked. “No, not that much,” she said.

All right, is this what we want in a president? A mixed race person ­ is that what qualifies?

She was also furious at Hillary and Bill for “attacking” Obama in South Carolina. “Hillary’s a street fighter,” she said, “and I don’t like that. As it is now I’ll vote for a Republican before I’ll vote for Hillary!”

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event with Creative Loafing staffers. Creative Loafing is one of Atlanta’s alternative newspapers. I was treated to a rather bazaar discussion with a white staffer who told me she was thrilled with Barrack Obama. “Listening to him gives me confidence. He has leadership qualities that I think we need in a president. I just feel good listening to him.” Then she went on at length about leadership and what it means, the necessary qualities. “Leaders need to inspire people,” she said. “And Obama has that quality.”

“Have you looked at his policies?” I asked. “No, I know I need to do that but haven’t looked seriously at them.”

Is this what qualifies someone for President? Someone who makes you feel good?

A black friend of mine who met recently with another black friend came back saying “He’s totally supportive of Obama! I don’t understand this. What’s progressive about Obama?” she asked. We talked briefly about this and couldn’t identify much that’s progressive about Obama in anything from healthcare (he doesn’t support a single payer system) to military positions (he wants to increase the military and get more aggressive in Afghanistan and Pakistan), and on. Fairly conservative on those issues it seems. He’s changed his position on the death penalty and now supports the penalty in some instances. Why the change we wondered? Probably politically motivated we agreed. Would he do this on abortion?

Some black friends who have worked with Obama in Chicago tell me he’s a good politician. He’ll do what’s necessary to win, they say, and therefore lacking an ideological position. This concerns them. Some Chicago friends have told me he’s a consensus builder, which they think is needed. Others have told me that when blacks are traveling abroad now they’ll meet folks in other countries who will refer to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and say essentially that ‘with blacks in position of power there must not be many racial problems in America anymore!’ This is not what they want to hear, of course. They’ve expressed concern that if someone black gets into the White House without good progressive credentials some of the critical issues facing minorities in America will be doomed. So far, Obama doesn’t pass the test, I’m told.

This past weekend I went to Savannah ­ another major Georgia city long the Atlantic coast. Savannah is where General James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia colony in 1733 ­ it was the last of the 13 colonies to be established. Today the city is 57% Black and has the distinction of having one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States.

While in Savannah on Sunday morning I went to one of my favorite coffee houses where locals meet at the corner of Bull and Perry Streets by the Chippewa Square. I happened upon three white retired males who call themselves the DOMS (Downtown Old Men of Savannah).

One of them was not going to vote, one of them was not sure who he was going to vote for and another was supporting John McCain. I asked if they had looked at the policies of the candidates. The response was interesting. The McCain supporter said, “It doesn’t matter what they say their policies are. American politicians never follow through on their policy promises anyway.”

Does that explain why no one seems to care about the policies of the candidates? But with Obama we don’t have much background in any case. This should give people some pause but it doesn’t seem to have much impact. At the very least, we know something about Clinton and certainly McCain. Obama’s virtually untested.

Later I talked with three White students in their 20’s from the Savannah School of Art and Design who were relaxing in the Chippewa Square. “Are you voting on Super Tuesday?” I asked them. “Does this have anything to do with the Super Bowl?” the only male asked. Suffice it to say they were seemingly not engaged in the presidential race. One of the women said that she didn’t like any of the candidates. I asked her what she would want in a president. Someone with “balls” she said. I asked her to clarify and was told courage or aggression. That little guy with the white hair, McCain, might be good. Her friend then asked her if she was a closet Republican. She didn’t know how to respond.

There you have it! It seems the country’s doomed to supporting candidates because they might be sexy, are of mixed race, make you feel good or are aggressive. Clinton, a white female seeking a leadership position, didn’t seem to resonate at all in Georgia.

It appears the corporate consolidation of the media; a constant diet of one-liners to explain the world; the emphasis on Hollywood star quality of individuals that seems to prevail in America, rather than a collective mindset; the lack of serious debate on critical issues in any major media much less informal discussion; and the end of requiring civics classes, has taken its toll.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

 

 

 

 

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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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