CHARLOTTE, Oct 9 – Under a canvas tent, African-American businessman and chef Santi Jones was offering barbeque pork tacos to tailgaters outside a Carolina football game when he ruminated on Hillary Clinton and whether black voters will win her the White House.
The former secretary of state needs a strong turnout among minorities, particularly African Americans, if she is to defeat Republican Donald Trump and succeed the nation’s first black president. Can she rally them to the ballot box on Nov 8 where it counts, in battlegrounds like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida?
“She can. But she’s got to try a little harder,” Jones, 37, said as hip-hop pumped from nearby speakers on a recent Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina. Racial tensions, fuelled by a series of police shootings of black men, have simmered in the United States since last year.
Some have accused real estate billionaire Trump of fomenting the discord through his provocative campaign rhetoric, his years of propagating the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States, and embrace of the Republican by white nationalists. And when he was asked about what was necessary to heal the racial divide during his first debate with Clinton, in the aftermath of deadly unrest that rocked Charlotte, Trump answered by lamenting that “we need law and order in our country”.
North Carolina is seen as ground zero for Clinton’s efforts to convert tangible and historically high black support for President Barack Obama into her own victory in swing states that will decide the election. Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008, then lost it four years later. Clinton’s campaign is now in overdrive to turn the Tar Heel state blue again.
Blacks comprise 12% of the US electorate, and about nine in 10 support Clinton, according to polls. Yet many black voters remain lukewarm about her. In a sign of the challenge Clinton faces, even Jones, who supports Clinton, said he is not sure whether he’ll vote.
At a Clinton campaign field office in a Charlotte strip mall, volunteers like Arnetta Strickland, 56, were making calls to rally Democrats and undecided voters. Strickland, a medical biller, shook her head when asked if Trump could do or say anything to make her or fellow African-Americans reconsider their votes.
“Most blacks are Democrats,” she explained. “No matter what he says, they’re not going to vote for him. We’re used to sticking together.” And yet Strickland, who volunteered for Obama, expressed skepticism about whether turnout for Clinton “will be the same as Obama’s”.
Last month, the president issued a stern warning to the black community. “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter,” Obama told a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. “After we achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African-American community, I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.”
Clinton holds a slim lead in North Carolina, according to polling. She may expect a bounce in coming days after a shocking video was made public Friday in which Trump was caught making very lewd and demeaning comments about groping women. At the Anderton barbershop in Charlotte, barber Brendan Watson said he and colleagues registered 2,000 new voters during the previous two elections.
“I see us doing like the same thing this time,” he said. “I feel a sense of urgency in the community that we will show up.” Still, he acknowledged North Carolina will be “tough” to win. The challenge comes amid a rise in nationwide racial tension fuelled in part by police killings of unarmed blacks.
Several relatives of African Americans who died at the hands of police or in police custody have become known as Mothers of the Movement, and campaign for Clinton. They include Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland whose death in a Texas jail sparked protests.
Reed-Veal acknowledged to AFP that the inspiration about Clinton might be different than it was with Obama, but hoped Democratic “loyalty” will convert to votes. Part of Clinton’s struggle to win over black voters, Reed-Veal said, stems from a controversial crime bill that Bill Clinton signed into law.
In a 1996 speech Hillary said it aimed to crack down on “super-predators”, which many took to mean young black men. She apologised, but resentment lingered. Yet Trump can not seem to attract minority voters. At July’s Republican National Convention, he had the smallest share of African-American delegates in a century.
One of them was Ada Fischer, a retired physician in Salisbury and North Carolina’s Republican National Committeewoman, who expressed confidence that about 10% of blacks will be won over by Trump’s economic vision. She said blacks would be “crazy” to back Clinton, and insisted it was liberals who were responsible for poor inner-city conditions.
“Democrats control those areas, not Republicans,” said Fischer, 68. Education and prison reform are ways Republicans reach out to African-Americans, far more than Democratic administrations which provide handouts, she said. “I tell black folks,” she said, “‘Tell me, what is it that Obama has done for us but be black?” — AFP