Obama and Clinton Battle for Black Women’s Support
LORIS, S.C. — In the beauty parlors that are among the social hubs for black women in the Carolinas, loyalties are being tested as voters here contemplate the first Democratic primary in the South.
Clara Vereen, who has been working here in rural eastern South Carolina as a hairstylist for more than 40 of her 61 years, reflects the ambivalence of many black women as she considers both Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
“I’ve got enough black in me to want somebody black to be our president,” she said in her tiny beauty shop, an extension of her home, after a visit from an Obama organizer. “I would love that, but I want to be real, too.”
Part of being real, said Ms. Vereen, whom everyone calls Miss Clara, is worrying that a black president would not be safe.
“I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn’t even have a chance,” she said as she styled a customer’s hair with a curling iron. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him.
And Mrs. Clinton?
“We always love Hillary because we love her husband,” Ms. Vereen said. Then she paused. Much of the chitchat in her shop is about whether a woman could or should be president.
“A man is supposed to be the head,” she said. “I feel like the Lord has put man first, and I believe in the Bible.”
Black women are a crucial constituency in South Carolina, which may hold its voting as early as Jan. 19. In 2004, about half of the state’s Democratic primary voters were black (in Iowa and New Hampshire, black voters made up about 1 percent or less of Democrats). And 29 percent of all Democratic primary voters here were black women, according to exit polls, giving them a pivotal role.
“It’s a key voting segment,” said Carey Crantford, a Democratic pollster based in Columbia. “They hold the balance of power, all other things being equal.”
Most polls here show Mrs. Clinton leading and Mr. Obama second, while John Edwards, who won the state’s primary in 2004, has been a distant third. Pollsters caution that polling in a contest like this can be unreliable because whites might not be telling the truth when they say they will vote for a black man, and blacks might not be telling the truth when they say they are undecided.
Still, Mr. Obama appears to have a big lead over Mrs. Clinton among black men, said Adolphus G. Belk Jr., a political scientist at Winthrop University who co-directed a recent study of black voters. Black women, Dr. Belk said, are divided equally between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, and significantly, perhaps a third are undecided.
“They stand at the intersection of race, class and gender,” he said. “Black men say to them, ‘Sister, are you with us?’ and at the same time white women say, ‘Sister, are you with us?’”
In interviews with more than three dozen black women both here and in Columbia, the state capital, most said they were still puzzling over which way to go. Some said that specific issues like health care and education were important to them, but most thought their votes would be based on intangibles and determined in the end by prayer.
Vanessa Gerald, 38, a stylist at Carrie’s Magic Touch, a salon around the corner from Miss Clara’s, said she was torn because Mr. Obama was “trying to help his people, which Hillary is too.” Ms. Gerald said she would “have to go with my faith” in making her final decision but was thrilled to have such a choice.
“This is history here,” she said, puckering up a client’s hair. “On both sides. Either way, it’s history. So let’s see what history going to bring in.”
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