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Clinton-Obama race producing ‘delightful dilemma’ for black women

US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
REUTERS/John Gress
Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton share a lighthearted moment before the Feb. 22 Democratic Party’s presidential debate at the University of Texas at Austin.

They’re old refrains: “It’s time we had a woman president.” And “It’s time we had a black president.”

But now, with the close Democratic Party contest between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, that scenario has become a distinct possibility.

It also means that many black women face a delightful dilemma.

It’s been 20 years since last matchup
“It is a very interesting place to be as a black woman,” says Catherine Squires, Cowles professor for journalism, diversity and equality at the University of Minnesota. “This is the first time since the ’80s that a black man and a white woman were on the ballot in primaries.” She’s referring to the 1988 race, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder vied unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Squires is concerned, however, that voters may be distracted by media rhetoric questioning “whether Barack is black enough for black people or whether Hillary cried” at a campaign stop.

For Walter Jacobs, chairman of the department of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, “what it comes down to is whether voters go for something old or something new.”

Despite Clinton’s gender breakthrough, Jacobs sees her as a member of the old guard and Obama as a change agent. “Obama is really changing the way we talk about race,” he says. “He’s post-civil rights movement and doesn’t have the baggage of someone like Jesse Jackson.”

Gabrielle Civil, associate professor of English, women’s studies and critical studies of race and ethnicity at the College of St. Catherine, takes issue with the premise that black women face a dilemma in choosing a candidate.

“For me, it has not been a dilemma,” she says. “We need to give black women a lot more credit for thoughtfulness. We don’t just vote for color. And [while] most of my friends consider themselves feminists, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically vote for Hillary.”

Most black women happy they have the choice
Despite their leanings, most African-American women interviewed expressed joy that they have such a decision to make.

So far, at decision time, most black women seem to be favoring Obama over Clinton. Obama, for example, carried Tuesday’s primary vote in Mississippi and won roughly 90 percent of the state’s large black vote.  

“We’re lucky to have such a choice,” says Reatha Clark King, a Twin Cities businesswoman and philanthropist. “We won’t be voting against anyone; we’ll be voting for someone. Now that we have made a breakthrough, whoever is chosen opens the door, and that ensures the door will be open for the other one next time around,” adds King, former president and board chair of the General Mills Foundation.

Several women were Clinton supporters until Obama came on the scene. Now they have either changed their alliance or are taking a closer look at both candidates before making a decision.

“At first, I was with Hillary because of the woman thing,” said Barbara Tinsley, 67, a tax administrator for Jeffersontown, Ky., whom I know from my time living in that state. “Then I heard Michele Obama speak, and I could identify with a lot she said. I thought she’d make a great first lady.

“Then I started listening to Obama’s speeches, and I felt like he, more than any of the candidates, could bring about a change,” Tinsley says. I’m impressed with his following among young people, and I believe he has the charisma, the education and the savvy to lead this country. I became an Obama babe.”

Kellie Holt, 21, who will be voting in her first presidential election, is carefully weighing the candidates’ positions on the issues before making a decision.

“When it first started, I was for Hillary because she is a woman, but I’m learning more about Barack. I need to learn more about both before I decide,” says Holt, a junior at the University of Minnesota who is majoring in family social science. “Part of me says I want a woman to represent me and other women. Then, there’s the fact that [Obama is] African-American …”

“I think they could both make great changes for America,” says Ose Ogbemudia, 22, an executive team leader for Target.

“I’m leaning more toward Barack. He seems more consistent in the things he says. It’s just so exciting we’re living in a time when we’re going to make history,” says Ogbemudia of New Hope. “You can’t ask for anything more — except to have a black woman running.”

Delma Francis, a former Star Tribune reporter, writes about education, children and families, and other topics.

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