Andrew Dys

There's no getting around race in primary

Nobody can tell 73-year-old Rosa Jones, with eight children, 16 grandchildren and the great-grands too, a woman who is president of the College Downs neighborhood association where so many black people have thrived for so long through long odds, that the Democratic primary election Saturday isn't partly about race.

Her race, what she has lived through as a black woman and what these candidates say each will do for people like her, matters.

"When I began talking to people about this election, I told all of them that they have to remember, 'You know what you have been through. You have to think about where you came from. And ask God to guide you as you go to the polls,'" Jones said.

The candidates say Saturday's primary shouldn't be about race. The black voter cannot separate life experience from the decision to be made, said Stephanie Murdock, who was among the first students to integrate Rock Hill High School almost 40 years ago. Her late husband and her sister-in-law were in that first class. I asked Murdock if she is black first or a woman first.

"It is impossible to avoid it; you can't ignore it," Murdock said. "Being black is who I am."

Murdock called it "overwhelming," the idea that a black man is coming to South Carolina this week asking for votes, and he has a real chance of winning the primary and even maybe becoming the next president.

Murdock's son, Alvin Murdock, is the pastor at Christ Deliverance Church. Murdock's grandfather long ago was the president of Rock Hill's NAACP. His late father was a black activist and then a preacher. Alvin Murdock today is a black preacher at a church filled with black people. His blood is the struggle for blacks to find equality.

And with all of that, he describes himself as "a pretty conservative guy" who voted for George W. Bush for president. Twice.

But not a Republican this time.

"We have to be productive citizens and fulfill our duties," Alvin Murdock said of Saturday's primary. "We have to show up."

The idea that a woman could be president, or a black man could be president, will make history either way, said Leon Cathcart, president of the Southland Park neighborhood association. Southland Park is another of Rock Hill's black neighborhoods filled with proud, successful families. There is the undeniable perception that Bill Clinton, Hillary's husband, when president was "always for blacks," Cathcart said.

A block captain at Southland Park -- somebody who looks out for everybody on the street like that other person or home was his own family -- is 64-year-old John Coleman. He said the race of the candidate for an office so important shouldn't be the issue. Yet, "All of the black race should be proud of (Barack) Obama. I know I am," Coleman said.

The Clintons are perceived by baby boomer-age blacks who "have seen that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all" as "icons and great inspirations to the black community," Coleman said.

The split between support for Obama and Clinton often is generational, Coleman said, where younger people support Obama.

"Either one would be good for the black community," Coleman said.

This should be a week, after Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, where the exceptional successes of South Carolina's blacks despite Jim Crow segregation in the not-too-distant past are talked about. Boasted about, even. And there should also be talk about the continued problems black people face in the struggle for equality.

I asked Winthrop University political science and African-American studies professor Adolphus Belk Jr. how race, and the race and experience of a person who is voting, could be taken out of the equation Saturday. He said, "You don't."

Democratic candidates and the party don't want race to be divisive in this primary and national election because of the fragile coalition of Democrats, but race is going to be important to many voters, Belk said.

People's politics are shaped by family, social and peer groups, he said.

Polling of Democratic voters last year by Belk and professor Scott Huffmon showed some voter issues such as a downturn in the economy and the war in Iraq affect all people, but issues such as the wealth gap between whites and blacks affect blacks more directly, Belk said. What's also in play is a candidate pool that can make voters inspired -- Sen. Clinton the woman and Sen. Obama the black candidate. That could give people "someone who looks like them in public life."

It is undeniable that blacks are more likely to live in poverty. The problems blacks have faced in trying for equal opportunities in education, jobs, health care, housing and criminal justice should not be ignored by the candidates.

Belk said for him, the question is, "When it is over Sunday, will the political system be responsive?" to these things so important to all voters. And specifically, black voters.

Cathcart said for him, Obama "responds to the needs of our community."

I asked Cathcart if that meant his neighborhood, his city, his state, his country. If that means he goes to the polls Saturday as a black man, a Rock Hillian, a South Carolinian or an American. Here's what he told me, which might show why even if the race of the candidate isn't supposed to matter, the race of the voter who has experienced life does:

"All of the above," Leon Cathcart said.