Barack Obama's run for the White House is changing the face of American politics… and the energetic campaign by the 46-year-old African-American senator from Illinois is getting a lot of African-American voters talking. We asked our reporters in New York City and in Jackson, Mississippi, to sample some of their thoughts on this historic turn in U.S. presidential politics.
A young tattoo artist named Rah summed up the overall sentiment about Barack Obama's political rise: "It's shocking and it's overwhelming at the same time. Because this is one person who just has been grabbing support from left and right, out of places you would not normally see it." A fellow New Yorker chimed in, "Let's give a black man a chance. Let's see if he makes it, let's see what he's capable of doing."
If Obama 'makes it', according to Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, it would be 'huge.' "It will knock down several psychological barriers that an African American — or if Hillary won, a woman — can be elected president." Wiseman adds, "Usually when those barriers are knocked down the first time, they're never built again."
The idea of breaking down barriers was echoed by many of the black voters we spoke with. Near the Mississippi State campus, one man characterized it as positive. "It's gonna be really big and dynamic, [and] I think it's gonna take some getting used to by a lot of Americans." He expressed the hope that it would bring about what he called "some good positive outcome of things that we're trying to change."
An MSU student said it would change the United States forever. "I think if Obama is chosen as president, America will have a huge turnaround, not just for the black community but for the white community." She predicted future African-American candidates would garner more respect.
Another student added, "Y'know, the sheer fact that he's running altogether shows how far we've come, so I think it'll be a great thing if this were to come to pass, it'd be something great."
On the streets of New York, an older woman called Obama's campaign historical. "We've come a very long way. Yeah. It's about time that other people should take that into consideration,"she said.
"Most people don't realize that blacks and whites, they think differently," observed Anthony Palmer, another New Yorker. "Not only do we think differently, we live differently, everything about us is totally different. So it would be different, it would be something new. We'll see what he does."
But many voters say they are looking beyond race, at what the candidates are saying and what they believe. One young black woman said, "We should just go out there and we should support a presidential candidate just for who they are and what they're preaching and they want to do for this country, not because they're black or white or whatever."
Although Bill Williams was doubtful he'd see a black president in his lifetime, he observed, "At this point in time, they can accept a person more so for what he's capable of doing, beyond the fact that he's a black person, or an African American. We've gotta look beyond gender and we gotta look beyond color at this time and date."
A voter in Jackson, Mississippi, echoed that imperative. "I don't think race or gender should be a factor, when it comes to election. I think that people should look at their character and what they stand for and what kind of person they are and their background."
Whether they consider race or gender, or simply the issues, the fact that for the first time in American history a black man has a good chance of being elected president is generating excitement and activism among many voters who, in the past, have sat out the national elections.
Professor Wiseman noted Obama's impact on voter turnout already. "Two things that are materializing now is an increase in African-American voters in the primaries, and also another notoriously low voting group, the 18-21 year olds are all of a sudden turning out to vote in primaries, so that's something that's really going to be watched to see if that can be sustained all the way through the presidential election in November."
And people of all races will be watching… and talking… and voting in this year's historic race to the White House.
Adam Phillips in New York City and Erika Celeste in Jackson contributed to this report.