Obama in Harlem


Armed with thousands of voter-registration forms, several dozen activists fanned out across 125th Street and Seventh Avenue on January 10, attempting to gather new last-minute supporters for Barack Obama. It was the last day to register to vote in New York’s February 5 Democratic primary. Many passersby who didn’t register asked for an Obama sticker; others just dismissed the activists.

Sooner or later, everything comes back to earth. Obama’s workers were flying high after their man won Iowa, but the results of the New Hampshire primary, in which Hillary Clinton outpolled Obama, threatened to raise fresh doubts about the candidacy of a black man for president. The disparity between the pre-election polling (which predicted an Obama victory) and the eventual results looked to some like “the Bradley Effect,” in which white voters tell pollsters they’re likely to vote for the black candidate and then break in large numbers toward the white one. The phenomenon was named after former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, whose consistent lead in pre- election polls during the 1982 gubernatorial race in California was followed by a narrow defeat at the hands of a white candidate: Republican George Deukmejian.

State senator Bill Perkins allowed that the Bradley Effect may be a factor, but he spoke confidently about Obama’s chances: “The opponents on the ballot are not the only ones in the race. We’re racing against that phenomenon, too . . . but we can overcome that.”

Some Harlem residents may be setting their sights a bit lower. When asked about Obama’s chances, resident Troy James simply said, “At least they’re taking him seriously—he ain’t no pushover.”

Alima Berkoun, an events planner for Harlem for Obama, put an optimistic face on the New Hampshire results, calling them a blessing in disguise because “it just shows you can’t take anything for granted.”

Obama supporters in Harlem were riding high after the Iowa primary, which some saw as moving his candidacy beyond the symbolic nature of the previous presidential campaigns by black candidates.

Diane Dean, a 58-year-old financial consultant from New Jersey who drove to Harlem to attend a party after the Iowa results, recalled the 1984 and 1988 candidacies of Jesse Jackson: “Everyone knew he was a symbolic candidate. People voted for Jesse not because they believed he could win, but because he could draw attention to their issues.” But Obama’s candidacy, she said, “is real—real beyond belief.”

Still, campaign workers like K. Bisi Akiwowo, who directs youth outreach for Obama in Harlem, said there were serious doubts among local residents about Obama’s chances for success.

“These people found it hard to believe he was leading in the polls,” Akiwowo said. “There is a lot of faithlessness in this country just based on history. I think it’s unfathomable [to them] that leadership at that level can come from someone who looks like them.”

That could very much affect Obama’s ability to draw support from black voters. One of the upcoming primary states, South Carolina, may prove to be a pivotal test of that.

In one
Winthrop University/ETV poll of black voters in South Carolina, conducted in September 2007, over 30 percent of the respondents said they didn’t think white voters would back a black presidential candidate. Akiwowo said she ran into the same doubts in Harlem’s barbershops and beauty salons: “The sentiment has been: ‘Do you think America is ready for a black president?’ ”

Mike Washington, the head of Harlem for Obama, shrugged his shoulders at the question. “Who’s not ready?” he asks. “Apparently, Iowa was ready.”

The Latest