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Black Voters Still Enthusiastic About Obama


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The images four years ago were unforgettable. African-Americans cheering, hugging and crying as Barack Obama became the first black president. The election was held as a watershed for race relations. This time around, the celebration was a bit more subdued for many African-Americans. As we hear from NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, their enthusiasm was tempered by what they see as a political climate filled with racial overtones.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Post & Beam was packed. This watering hole in L.A.'s largely black Baldwin Hills neighborhood was crammed on election night, with regulars anxiously watching the fast-changing map of the U.S. turn red and blue. At the long bar, entrepreneur James Burks says he can't help but see racial implications in the results.

JAMES BURKS: Race plays a big deal in this country, and it's not going to be eradicated just in his term.

BATES: The anxiety in the room was palpable. Many people, including Burks, worried that a second Obama term wouldn't happen. It would become the casualty of relentless attack ads by billionaire-funded PACs and other Obama opponents. Then, the moment everyone had been hoping for.


BATES: It was a sweet end to a campaign that many voters of color, especially African-Americans, found bitterly divisive and tinged with race-baited code words. Several cited former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, who called the president lazy when talking to MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Governor, I want to give you a chance to maybe take it back. Did you really mean to call Barack Obama, the president of the United States, lazy?


BATES: Sununu was referring to Mr. Obama's lackluster performance in the first debate. But he seemed unaware that lazy is part of a hated negative stereotype, the verbal equivalent of Stepin Fetchit imagery.

Sam Fulwood, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, says what he calls subterranean racial referencing popped up a lot in this campaign.

SAM FULWOOD: We saw that a great deal with the attacks on welfare and other issues like that by people like Newt Gingrich who made a really overt effort at interjecting coded racial messages and language into the appeal but then backing away from it when called on it.

BATES: Things perceived as racist - from a congressman calling the president a liar during the joint session of Congress address, to candidate Romney chiding him to wait his turn during the second debate - are certainly insulting but not necessarily racist, says Tulane professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Those sorts of things could happen. But when they happen and the president is black, it carries a different meaning.

BATES: Both Harris-Perry and Fulwood say there could be no mistake about other behavior, such as reports of suppression tactics aimed at black and Latino voters in many parts of the country. Sam Fulwood says these are uncomfortably reminiscent of his North Carolina childhood during the civil rights era.

FULWOOD: It is a part of the institutional memory, I think, of people of color, particularly African-Americans, when people try to tell them that they can't or should not or will be prevented to vote.

BATES: That pushback could partially account for the high turnouts that gave the president his victory.

This morning, on the patio of the local Starbucks, a few friends continued to discuss last night's election results. As a motorcycle pulled away, Julian Paige, a retired aerospace worker, was unapologetic and blunt when he described what he sees as the GOP's image problem.

JULIAN PAIGE: I hate to say this, but when you look at the Republican National Convention, it looked like a Klan rally. When you look at the Democratic National Convention, it was - it looked like America.

BATES: And America, says his friend David Michael Bailey, restored his faith last night when a coalition of races and ethnicities re-elected Barack Obama.

DAVID MICHAEL BAILEY: I'm in a good place. I have a lot of hope. And as an African-American male who owns his own business, father of four, I feel good today.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.

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