Ethnic studies professor Richard Breaux swiveled in his office chair and recalled how his grandmother was not allowed to vote in the state of Arkansas. It was not until 1965 that poll taxes, strict literacy tests and other mechanisms to prevent African Americans from voting became illegal in the southern states.
Two and three generations back, Breaux said, many thought they’d never see the day when any major party would nominate a black man as its candidate for the president of the U.S.
After more than 40 years of civil rights and voting reform, CSU students prepare for Election Day in an age some say is numb to racial discrimination.
Breaux and three black students shared a snapshot of thoughts about what it means for the first black man to claim the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in history.
The African American vote
“The belief often is . African Americans are going to vote for Obama because he’s African American, which isn’t necessarily most cases,” Breaux said. “. One of the things people miss is that historically, African Americans have voted for the party that has been more progressive on civil rights issues.”
African Americans voted for the Republican Party during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, but a shift occurred by 1964 as segments of the Democratic Party began to advocate for broad civil rights. Legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was largely championed by the Democrats. Since 1972, Democratic Party affiliation among voting African Americans has been estimated at 80 percent or higher, Breaux said at an October lecture.
Freshman English education major Elysse Evans, a Democrat, said her support of Obama doesn’t stem from his race — she would not have voted for Obama if he were a Republican.
“I wouldn’t,” she said when asked. “Initially, I was not for Obama; I was for Hillary (Clinton).”
Because of the election’s historical status, Evans said, “African Americans who are politically aware and who are educated” are inclined to be more passionate about this election.
But, she said, “I think they’re glad that a black man is running, but they still haven’t registered.” She cited friends from her hometown in Los Angeles, Calif. as an example, she said, where others her age aren’t in college.
“They’re not even registered to vote, and they’re not voting,” she said. “But they support Obama and encourage that other people vote. It’s a weird irony.”
During the 2004 presidential election, 56.3 percent of the total U.S. African American voting-age population voted, and 64.4 percent were registered, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, 64 percent of the total U.S. voting-age population voted.
African Americans who are 25 and older vote in larger percentages, Breaux said, because members of the older demographic remember that until 1965, a large number of African Americans could not vote if they lived in the South.
“My dad knows that. He grew up in Arkansas,” Breaux said. “My grandmother’s still alive, too. So those people go out to vote now.”
Although Obama’s potential election as president could be viewed as inspirational, students said it both would change current racial relations in the U.S. but might offer cause for concern:
“It would show, in a sense, that America is progressing,” Evans said. “However, the flipside to that is if Obama wins, I hope he doesn’t get assassinated.”
Javon Baker, who is working on a post-bachelor’s in ethnic studies, said that other countries might see an Obama presidency as a symbol for progress, but in the U.S., many would not.
“He was afforded some opportunities that most people don’t get,” Baker said. “And I’m sure he worked hard to get to where he got to. . It’s just that most people would say that’s a good story; a lot of people won’t see that as attainable as such a goal as making it to the NBA, or something like that.”
He mentioned a separation between “more affluent blacks and working class blacks,” tracing the divide to the rhetorical battles between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on the topic of segregation.
“They say that once he gets elected, black people will no longer be able to play the race card, or they’ll no longer have an excuse for the things that they go through,” he said. “And I just don’t want people to really believe that that’s true, because there’s a system that’s been in place for centuries.”
If Obama became president, he said, it would be a sign of the reversal of systematic oppression, and the prospect encourages black voting.
“It’s the first time that people actually have an opportunity to tell their kids that they can be president and see the example that it’s possible,” he said.
Freshman open option major Gabrielle Ohaya, 18, said prejudice could be a force in the election after experiencing racism a month ago in Westfall Hall.
“My roommate’s friend made some kind of joking comment about beating my friend and I down like KKK does on black week,” Ohaya said. “. I could not believe it. I didn’t know people still thought like that.”
Staff writer Shayna Grajo can be reached at email@example.com.