What Obama Owes New Haven

Posted on 01. Oct, 2008 by in Features

Shafiq Abdussabur remembers sitting on the shoulders of his mother, dressed in a little black jacket bedecked with protest buttons, staring out at an army of police in full riot gear. The year was 1970, and Ms. Abdussabur, her son, and twelve thousand other Black Panthers and their supporters had converged on the New Haven Green to protest the trial of Panther leader Bobby Seale and several of his compatriots for murder. In the following month, before the case ended in a mistrial, activists would pelt the security cordon with trash and rocks, two bombs would go off in the Yale Hockey rink, the National Guard would shoot tear gas into the defenseless mob, and 23-year-old Hillary Rodham, then a student at the Yale Law School, would volunteer for the ACLU to prevent civil rights violations during the legal proceedings against Seale.

Within days of the clash between demonstrators and police, a collection of prominent black leaders and Yale administrators were working in tandem to defuse tensions on the Green. Despite outcry from some of the University’s more conservative academics and alumni, the student body, in solidarity with colleges across the country, went on strike by refusing to attend classes from May 1 until the end of the semester. Seale’s trial deadlocked, with the jury voting 11 to 1 for acquittal.

For most, the Seale trial has faded to a footnote in the history of Yale and New Haven or a better-forgotten cultural battle of the ’60s. But for Abdussabur, now 42 and one of New Haven’s most outspoken black advocates, the trial remains a fundamental point of reference, a cultural moment that simultaneously exposed scarring racial conflict and a hopeful glimmer of post-racial idealism. “In the ’60s, a group of leaders came out who could relate to all kinds of people of different creeds and colors in the name of equal rights and opportunities,” Abdussabur says. “People like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were black leaders with a universal message.” Now, with the prospect of Barack Obama’s victory in November, Abdussabur sees the same potent mixture of hope and conflict he saw that spring in 1970, when the New Left and Black Power movements stood side by side, however uneasily.

“Black people are looking for Malcolm in Barack, others for Martin,” Abdussabur suggests in his authoritative and resonant tone. “Many white people are looking for Bobby [Kennedy]. In the life of Barack Obama, there is a little bit of all of that, and everyone is claiming their piece.”

In light of their city’s own tortured racial history—from a pronounced period of white flight after World War II, to the chaos of the Seale Trial, to the eventual election of John C. Daniels, New Haven’s first black mayor, in 1989—New Haven’s black leaders see Obama both as a black politician and as its antithesis: a post-racial candidate.

“He’s lived that life, he’s had that experience African Americans share,” says Abdussabur, who works as a police officer and has launched initiatives to decrease gun violence, winning City Hall’s Man Of The Year award in 2006. “As president, he will have a responsibility to every man and woman in this country.” But, Abdussabur concedes, “When I go into the voting booth in November, sure, I love Obama a little bit more for being black, I trust him a little bit more for being black.”

Abdussabur believes that Obama’s campaign promises a new sense of possibility for the next generation of African Americans, a sense he lacked during his own elementary-school years. “One day in class,” he recalls, “the teacher asked which one of us wanted to be President, and I was the only black kid who raised his hand. Had it been a different question, who can be President, I’m not sure I would have done the same thing. But now, after Barack’s run, everyone in that class can raise his or her hand, even the girls.”

Yusuf Shah, an African-American New Haven alderman, sees Obama differently. His vision of Obama matches the campaign’s portrait of a figure who transcends race. “Barack Obama owes the black community nothing,” he says pointedly.

Shah’s belief is rooted in his own route to political prominence, a route very different from Abdussabur’s. While Abdussabur’s formative experience was the racially charged Seale trial, Shah has spent much of his career bridging the gap between his own ideology and background and the very diverse demands of his constituents. A black Muslim, Shah believes his religion and race are essential spiritual and historical guides that inform his views, but that they are not the end of the story. Shah has come to see Obama much as he sees himself—as someone who has worked to transcend the interests of a single racial or ethnic group. “Since he’s the first African-American candidate, I’m celebrating that,” the alderman says. “But it’s because his politics and motives are on point that I support his run.”

“Above all,” Shah explains, “Barack’s message is, ‘You can make it if you try.’ A lot of people in New Haven say that there’s a problem with our youth. There isn’t. They’re broke; they come from bad neighborhoods. You give these kids an incentive, show them that they can make it, and that will have an effect.”

Shah believes that Obama’s success could mark a sea change in the nation’s attitude toward the political promise of black Americans. “To see an African American reach this level,” explains the alderman, “to me means that America has reached a level of understanding that racial context is not the issue. Instead, it’s the issue of what we need as a country.” Shah sums up the situation in terms of his faith. “Islam is a religion of peace: anything that will bring about positive change is blessed. We hope that it means Obama will be in the White House. But at the end of this election, there will need to be a taqueed, a unity, to make America a blessed country.” For Shah, the issue of Obama’s race is crucial not because it represents a specific victory for the African-American community, but because it communicates a desire for the nation’s people to draw closer as a whole, to reach taqueed together.

On February 2, Barack Obama clinched New Haven’s Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one margin, culling roughly twelve thousand votes to the New York senator’s six thousand. Before an ecstatic victory crowd at Hula Hanks, Mayor and Barack-backer John DeStefano declared, “New Haven is going to be why Barack Obama wins the state of Connecticut.”

Indeed, the Illinois senator had scored a mere four percentage points above Clinton across the state’s eight counties, securing 26 to her 22 delegates and losing by significant margins in Windham and New London. For New Haveners at the celebration, this disparity became a point of hometown pride. “They’re saying Connecticut is too close to call,” declared the city’s Democratic Party Chairwoman Susie Voigt, “but there’s one city in Connecticut where it’s not too close to call. New Haven votes for a progressive Democratic outlook.”

The rallying cry for local Democrats had gone out months earlier, with a series of prescient and well-publicized endorsements for Obama by four New Haven aldermen: Ward 1’s Rachel Plattus, Ward 2’s Gina Calder, Ward 15’s Joey Rodriguez, and Ward 22’s Greg Morehead. Together, the team set about, in Rodriguez’s words, “educating” ambivalent voters about Obama’s positions on education, the economy, and the war in Iraq. The push payed off. By February, DeStefano, State Representative Rosa DeLauro, and numerous other aldermen had pledged their support. By the time ballots closed on the 2nd, all but three of New Haven’s thirty wards had sided with Obama.

Coinciding with this landslide were record numbers in voter registration and turnout, specifically amongst the city’s African Americans. Morehead and Calder, both influential advocates for the New Haven black community, may have galvanized the minority population on primary day. Both aldermen’s wards, the predominately black Dixwell and Dwight neighborhoods, posted five-to-one sweeps for Obama. “Race plays a factor,” conceded Rodriguez, himself a key force in garnering Hispanic support for the senator. “There are more expectations for Obama in black communities. This is a historic moment, and Obama is the first truly credible African-American presidential candidate we have seen.”

If, as DeStefano said, New Haven was the reason Obama won the state of Connecticut, then the voices of local blacks played no small part in winning New Haven for Obama. This would mean that Obama, attempting to win an election by transcending race, won the Connecticut primary largely because New Haven’s black community rose to support him.

“Post-racial politics is a lie. It sounds good but it is not real,” writes Gary Holder-Winfield, New Haven’s Democratic nominee for state representative and a rising black leader in the city, in an email. He deems talk of race-transcending unity, like Shah’s hope for taqueed, sophistry. Like Abdussabur, Holder-Winfield speaks in historical terms. “When did we get past race anyway?” he asks. “Certainly it wasn’t the sixties because the civil rights movement proper was still going on then. Not the seventies—just look at the activities of the Panthers or attempts to desegregate in Boston or the results of people wanting to marry between races in Virginia and on and on… So, when did we get past race to be in a post-racial period?”

Before America can begin to discuss the possibility of declaring itself absolved of its racial legacy, Holder-Winfield contends, it must first acknowledge and then reconcile the damages of that history. “If Barack Obama represents anything, he represents either the best example of wearing the mask that I have ever seen or he is fundamentally different from other politicians, in that he truly believes that we can be more than we have been, that we can get past race, that America can be America for the first time.”

On October 6, Holder-Winfield walked into the common room of Yale’s Branford College flanked by student members of the Yale Democrats. Slightly short, slightly pudgy, he doesn’t cut an intimidating figure, but he speaks with a self-assurance and calm that inspires instant trust and approachability. The man is his mantra—all politics are identity politics—in practice. “If I can sit down at a table with you and talk with you for half an hour,” he tells the thirty or so assembled students, “you’re going to vote for me.”

It’s an approach Holder-Winfield wishes the Democrats would learn to embrace. “I truly believe that part of the reason Democrats are stunned at our losses is a lack of an understanding of the power of identity politics… Obama must find a way to connect with the vast majority by developing a narrative that speaks across identities while at the same time being able to tailor that narrative to specific audiences without appearing to do so.” Obama’s relatability problem, Holder-Winfield continues in his email, is amplified by Obama’s inherent dissimilarities to the American majority. “Barack Obama is Black, even if he is half White, and his skin color is, in our country, a natural disconnect. The good news to me is that this disconnect can be overcome. The problem is whether we are dealing with a disconnect or ingrained racism, which is a gap that will not be bridged.”

Having only become active in the Obama bid since last spring, when, as leader of the Connecticut Federation of Black Clubs, he was contacted by the campaign to unify African-American communities across the state, Holder-Winfield holds up his own political background as proof of the necessity of door-to-door campaigning and face-to-face conversations. Moving at an early age from the Bronx to Westbury, Connecticut, Holder-Winfield had planned on pursuing a career in physics before a return visit to his Connecticut hometown convinced him to change paths. “Westbury used to be a place people moved to in order to get away from violence and crime. When I came back for my high school reunion, I saw a lot of kids getting involved in drugs and gangs. I wanted to find a solution, so I started getting active in local politics.”

In order to effect change on a community level, Holder-Winfield believes, it is necessary for politicians to cross cultural divides that their constituents are reluctant to bridge on their own. Making a rural representative feel that she and her supporters have a stake in urban issues arising in the state legislature is a necessary step in generating visibility of minority issues within the larger electorate. To Holder-Winfield, this kind of inter-community dialogue will be necessary not only to ensure an Obama victory in November, but also to enfranchise black citizens who feel that their voices and concerns go unheard in the national caucus. “When Black people hear the president and other national figures speak about America, speak about ‘we’ and ‘us,’ we are not sure that Blacks are included in that narrative,” Holder-Winfield explains. “Truth be told many of us are sure we are not.”

Like Abdussabur, Holder-Winfield believes that Obama owes African Americans specific representation. With a black man in the White House, he explains, there will inevitably be more pressure from minorities for the president to advocate on behalf of underrepresented and underprivileged sectors of American society. “We are going to expect that an Obama who has based his campaign on ‘change that you can believe in’ means just that,” Holder-Winfield declares. “We are going to expect that as president Obama is as adept at speaking to Blacks as he was as a candidate at speaking to Whites. Does he owe us a revolution? No. But he does owe us representation.”

Abdussabur registers a similar sentiment, explaining, “The black community has written Barack a check. That check is for outreach and the amount is for change. And I believe when Obama wins in November, African Americans will see that check cashed.”

On Tuesday, October 7, the eve of the second Presidential debate, the New Haven Democratic campaign office officially opened. Within the cramped one-room space at 900 Chapel Street, phone banks were set up, voter-registration forms handed out, and a huge macaroni- and-sandwich buffet consumed by local Democratic leaders and a selection of mostly-white students and mostly-black Elm City residents. A dry-erase board with sign-ups for canvassing trips to New Hampshire was nearly filled. A little girl walked from person to person handing, out “Obama/Biden ’08” buttons.

Susie Voigt, walking with a cane, took the microphone to thank volunteers for their long hours and devotion to the candidate. Many of the volunteers had joined the cause in the past few weeks, though one woman had been working with the campaign since late 2006. “It’s a great time to be a Democrat,” the chairwoman intoned. “We’re making history in rooms like this.”

Later, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro delivered a fist-pumping ultimatum to the crowd: “This is the first time in a while that people believe that there can be a new politics. There is no choice but winning on November 4.”

A father sitting in the back row of the audience cradled his baby daughter and whispered into her ear, “Yes, we can.”

Indeed, since February, New Haven has shown that, yes, it can join together to rally behind a candidate, to attract previously disenchanted voters, to play a decisive role in achieving an Obama victory in November. But to view this or any other city’s support of America’s first black presidential nominee as somehow of one mind or motivated out of a collective racial consciousness is not only myopic: It is dangerous. New Haven’s black leaders, although nearly unanimous in their support for Obama, nevertheless approach him with vastly diverse expectations and reservations. To claim that Obama is black America’s choice for ’08 not only undermines the promise of post-racial politics but ideologically shortchanges minority leaders who have combated racism their entire lives. Abdussabur, Shah, and Holder-Winfield may fall within the same census demographic, but to halt analysis at a racial category is to deny the possibility of discussing race in a meaningful way. After November 4, the question for not only New Haven but the country at large must not be which groups voted for whom, but why individuals went to the polls and why one candidate appealed to them over another. Even when we see consensus in a community, we must understand that such consensus is imperfect, varied, and composed of disparate needs and desires for change. Then, and only then, can this country begin to speak of itself as post-racial.

After the speeches, the modest crowd dispersed into the chill autumn night, talking of the debate to come, carpooling plans to a rally in Hartford, the successes and failures of that night’s phone drive. Parents walked home with their kids while others made their way to debate parties sponsored by the headquarters. Whatever the candidacy of Barack Obama means to these volunteers, representatives, politicians, and citizens, both white and black, they have united in New Haven’s own microcosmic taqueed, at least for the moment, to get him elected.

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