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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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Fear and Racism on the Campaign Trail

By Brian Barger
November 3, 2008

Editor’s Note: Just days before Election 2008, veteran investigative reporter Brian Barger visited southern Virginia, an area that one of John McCain’s top aides described as part of the “real Virginia” but that also is a target of Barack Obama’s campaign:

Visitors are greeted at the edge of Virginia’s Caroline County with a giant billboard proclaiming it “McCain Country.” It’s also become a call-to-canvassing priority for the Obama campaign, which sees this as a central battleground to win the swing state.

With echoes of an earlier era, volunteers are making the pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., and Maryland to join local residents in a last-ditch bid to persuade voters here, black and white, to cast aside their fears and apathy, this time to help elect a black man President of the United States of America.

It’s a tall order. This is horse country, and large plantations dominate much of the landscape. Black residents account for somewhere between 30 and 45 percent of the population, depending on whose figures you believe, and they don’t own the plantations.

For a lot of people around, here, the idea of a black man running for President, let alone being President, is entirely alien. For blacks, there’s a pervasive undercurrent of fear that the election will be stolen, that he will somehow be prevented from achieving his righteous place in American history, finally turning a page on centuries of racial subjugation.

For some white people, it just doesn’t feel right. Still, there’s excitement, an air of anticipation breaking through the fear of yet another disappointment.

Coming into the county, just past the ramshackle Rt. 2 Diner, is Route 606, otherwise known as Stonewall Jackson Highway.  It leads to the hamlet of Guinea Station and the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a larger-than-life tribute to one of the most enduring heroes of the Confederacy.

The area around the shrine is now predominantly black. They don’t have much money, and in the hours and days before the election, the streets are buffeted by crosscurrents of anticipation and fear. Many of the residents are deeply suspicious of white Obama volunteers knocking on their doors. And for good reason.

Just last week, an official-looking leaflet was being distributed in black neighborhoods advising voters that Republicans should vote on Nov. 4, and Democrats on Nov. 5. It was just the latest in the long string of dirty tricks residents were warning each other about.

So when one elderly black man answered the door on Ormesby Street, just behind the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Obama canvassers were met with deep suspicion.

“How do I know you’re not wolves in sheep’s clothing?” he finally stated, firmly refusing to discuss how he might vote on Tuesday.

KKK Memories

Christine Hardy, a 64-year-old black woman, lives a couple of miles up Stonewall Jackson Highway and she also was reluctant to answer the door. She’s lived in the county for seven years, and described a climate of racial disharmony.

“There is a lot of distrust,” she explained. “This man right up the street, he was a Ku Klux Klansman.”

“I’m not used to this,” she added. “We were raised to love everybody, even the ones that did us wrong, we’re still supposed to pray for them.”

Hardy said she had always attended integrated churches, and that wasn’t easy for her to find in Caroline County. She settled on Thomburg Baptist Church, on Jefferson Davis Highway, which she has attended for several years.

But last week, she said the pastor began denouncing Barack Obama as a Muslim and imploring churchgoers to “vote for the who who’s a Christian.”

Then this Sunday, “he gave us fliers. He had so many lies on there about what Obama was standing for… He said Colin Powell said Barack Obama was a Muslim and we should vote for the Christian … A lot of people in there might believe that because we have a lot of elderly people in there.”

On Twin Cedars Lane, Frances Jordan, who is white, said she had been undecided, “but I feel like I’m leaning to Obama.” For Jordan, it wasn’t a matter of race.

“I’m really not sure whether I’m ready for that woman [Sarah Palin] to be in the presidency,” Jordan said. “She’s more like me, but I don’t know if she’s going to have the experience if something was to happen to the President. I just don’t know.”

Jordan said some relatives were reluctant to support Obama, predicting he would be killed, citing the recent arrests in Arkansas of two skinheads for plotting to assassinate Obama.

“But I think he’s so much like Kennedy that there is something they are going to try to do. And I think it’s going to be bad for all of us if something happens to him,” she said.

Is she ready for a black person to be President?

“Oh yeah,” Jordan responded. “If you can do the job, I don’t care about the race.  I know there are some people who are voting because he is black, people who have never voted before. They are voting because they want a black person in there. I’m not doing that. I want to see the best person” in the White House.

And in her mostly black neighborhood there were indeed people who were voting, many for the first time, in the hope that a black man could become President.

April Bumbrey, 18, excitedly talked about “change,” in explaining why she registered. Her father, Sam Turner, acknowledged that deep fault lines divide this county, but expressed optimism that “things will be different this time.”

April’s mother, September Turner, said there is a real push in the black community to rise above suspicion and cynicism. Her pastor at the nearby Macedonia Baptist Church “has been saying that every member should get out there and vote because their vote can make a difference. The election this year may make a difference toward the future for all of us.”

All three talked about “change” as something tangible: a belief that life can finally become something different, that people can have hope, and not just in another life.

In many ways, this is an unlikely place for the Obama campaign to devote so many human resources. There are only 23,937 residents, but just this year, 1,247 people have registered to vote, raising the number to 16,995, according to the county registrar. Obama campaigners assume most will vote Democratic.

In 2004, the race was close in Caroline County, with Bush edging out Sen. John Kerry by a 50.2-to-49.1 percent margin. Statewide, Bush won by a 54 to 45 percent margin, so Obama strategists saw the county, with a substantial black population, as ripe for a change.

With an enormous divide between rich and poor, the per capita income is $18,342. Twelve percent of residents finish college.

Obama Strategy

Michelle Moghtader, a 2007 graduate of the University of Virginia, runs the Obama campaign office in Bowling Green, the county seat.

The strategy is two-tiered. At the top, out of Obama headquarters, a highly sophisticated, albeit largely untested strategy of microtargeting potential supporters that fuses the latest developments in commercial and political marketing.

On the ground, in such outposts as Bowling Green, volunteers armed with lists compiled daily, knock on doors and make phone calls. First, it was to register voters. In the final stretch, the effort has been targeting sporadic voters, Republicans who may be leaning toward Obama, and trying to assess how likely people are to actually come out and vote.

As the vote draws near, more and more volunteers pour into the two-story brick campaign office on Main Street. Inside, it’s an ethnic cauldron not usually seen in Caroline County.

“The Obama campaign has reenergized the black community in this area,” said Artin Afkhami, an Iranian-American who recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and is now a Bowling Green Obama organizer. “I don’t think any other political event could have done that.”

“It’s breaking down divides that would not have been broken down in any other way shape or form because it’s forcing people of two different groups that would never ever approach each other to work together  in a common goal, and I think that’s all because of the personal character of  Obama,” he said.

“I’m not finding that when I go canvassing. I’m finding that when I come to the office and I see people who have not interacted with each other except, for example, when their children were in school together and they were at parent-teacher meetings, people who were like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you in 20 years.’

“And they are connecting and not only are they connecting on a superficial level, but were working together and gaining an empathetic understanding of each other.”

Meanwhile, a day before the election, Obama volunteers are plying back roads, such as American Way, a rough dirt road where a 30-year-old resident listed as a sporadic voter lives. On a third pass, she still isn’t home.

On other streets, the Obama pilgrims are greeted with high-fives, cheers and invitations to come in.

Several times, when canvassers, clip boards in hand, ask black residents who they were inclined to vote for, they are met with a quizzical look, as though asking, “what planet are you from?”

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