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A Candidate Who Mirrors Their Lives
Black Professionals See Obama's Trials, Gains as Reflection of Their Own

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Back in September, they were seemingly alone.

Young black professionals, raised on MTV and "The Cosby Show," flocked to Washington's hot spots as the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus became all about Barack Obama. Raising money for him. Getting a glimpse of him. Just being a part of him.

A crowd peppered with a doctor, some lawyers and grad students mingled over Hennessy and hope while hip-hop throbbed at Bohemian Caverns on U Street. Outside, an artist put browns and blues and blacks together on a canvas and a picture gradually emerged: Sen. Barack Obama, possible president.

Entrance into the nightclub that Wednesday evening was a $25 contribution to the Obama campaign. "That's a bad night at Love," said Jarvis Houston, 30, of Chicago, referring to the popular D.C. club. "That's two drinks."

Back then, there was an exclusivity to it all. A velvet rope. A woman with a clipboard and a list of names. By the time the weekend was over, the crowd had raised nearly $11,000 at the Caverns and rustled up $150,000 at Oya restaurant for the candidacy of a man they could claim as their own.

This mid-20s to mid-40s generation has never questioned Obama's authenticity as a black man, even as their parents voiced doubt before voting began about a biracial candidate who never marched for civil rights. To many young black professionals, Obama was black like them. They brought the noise with Public Enemy but could sing along with Duran Duran.

To them, Barack and Michelle were Cliff and Clair, and they were headed to the White House with their two little Rudys. They embraced his candidacy early and slapped Obama '08 bumper stickers on their cars.

"He is very familiar to them," says Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University. "He's done a great job of doing what middle-class blacks do, work in a predominantly white world but still maintain a sense of racial identity and groundedness."

Now, Obama has piled up primary wins from Alaska to Maine and built broad support across all parts of American society, to the deep satisfaction of these early adopters. Their moods rise and fall with his campaign's successes and setbacks, disappointed after Clinton wins in Texas and Ohio but confident their man will still claim the prize. They worry that controversial rhetoric from the senator's former pastor will influence uncommitted superdelegates, then enumerate Obama's lead in the popular vote, number of wins and pledged delegates.

He is part of a new generation of black political leaders, including Mayor Adrian Fenty, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, that did not emerge from the black activism of the '60s. Nor did he emerge from the black church, once the incubator of African American political leadership, says Bart Landry, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. His candidacy marks "the political maturation of the black community," he says. "Finally, black leadership is not coming from the church, it's coming from the secular society."

Those who are young, black and affluent also have matured, Landry says, noting that while their parents may have sought to integrate white neighborhoods, this generation is establishing its own communities. They have helped to create wealthy enclaves in Prince George's County and in DeKalb County, Ga., he points out.

One of those is Darryl Wiggins, 46, who owns a copying business and lives in Shepherd Park. He co-hosted the Oya fundraiser last fall. "I knew other people would vote for him," says Wiggins, "because he has the best judgment and the best ideas."

Last month, the night of the 20th debate between the last two Democratic candidates in the race, Wiggins sat inside 18th Amendment, on the edge of a pool table with a cherry-red surface. With everyone at the Capitol Hill bar transfixed by the debate, the pool table was just a coat rack and resting place for a lone Corona, half full with no lime. Feet away from Wiggins, Jacqueline Stallworth, an Alexandria teacher, and Shane Perrault, a District psychologist, sat on bar stools. Their eyes rarely left one of the wide-screens.

Like other Obama supporters, they had learned about the debate-watch party via an e-mail from the Obama campaign. "They switched their sides up tonight," said Stallworth, 37, as she watched Clinton and Obama take their seats for the debate at Cleveland State University.

Stallworth, a transplant from Mobile, Ala., said she jumped on the Obama train early, attracted by his "confidence."

"Knowledgeable. He's a leader," she said.

But she admitted that she had her doubts. "I was pulling for him, but I was thinking about the popularity of Clinton," she said.

Perrault, who grew up in Michigan, interjected: "I never didn't believe in Obama. I didn't believe in America. This has really changed that."

He looked around at blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos and gays ordering bottles of wine and beer and gourmet pizzas in a bar so crowded that people rubbed up against one another to get in and out. There were other Obama-watch parties around the District, but, said local Democratic activist Philip Pannell, this was the place to be.

Before Obama was cool, Bill Clinton was cool. Danielle Cotten, 25, was a "Sistah for Obama" teetering on black stilettos and greeting guests at the door of Bohemian Caverns six months ago. Though she was a host of the fundraiser, she said she wasn't so sure she could turn her back on the former first family.

There was a loyalty to Clinton. As in Bill.

"I remember that late-night show," she said, smiling and recalling Bill Clinton playing "Heartbreak Hotel" on the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

She was about 9 at the time and living in the District. While Clinton was in office, "he visited my high school several times," Cotten said. "My choir sang at the White House."

Hillary and Bill go hand-in-hand, she said: "To me, she actually implemented policy. I don't think black people should vote for Obama just because he's black."

But Cotten's devotion to the couple is now over, she said recently, done in by what she characterized as "Obama bashing, both by Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton." Campaigning before the South Carolina primary, Hillary Clinton said it took the work of President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass civil rights legislation, while the former president likened Obama's claims about his record on Iraq to a "fairy tale." The first comment was interpreted by many voters as a slight of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the second was a dismissal of Obama's assertion of consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

And Cotten said she feels something stir when she listens to Obama. "When Obama speaks, it seems to come from the heart," she said.

College-educated African Americans remain an "elite" group, said Pattillo, noting that just 17 percent of black adults ages 25 and over have undergraduate degrees. "They think it's extraordinary that you have this eminently qualified man," said Candace Tolliver, a longtime Hill aide who now works as an Obama campaign spokeswoman. "They expect no less because that's what they expect of themselves."

"A lot of these people are in positions to do well financially. . . . They are concerned about education because they are going to have children, or have children. Can we send our kids to Georgetown Day and Sidwell Friends?" she asked, referring to two of the more exclusive private schools in the area.

Obama's message of change and building community also resonates with many in this demographic who were raised to pull up those less fortunate. When members of Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities joined with other young black professionals and the "Sistahs for Obama" to throw the Bohemian Caverns fundraiser, they dubbed themselves "The Talented Tenth Society," a nod to W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of looking to a small group of educated blacks as the community's leaders.

Jarvis Houston, dreadlocked and goateed, grew up in Chicago, where Obama did his community organizing. The oldest of four children, he was raised by a single mother. "All of us went to college," he said. He's been traveling the country hosting fundraising parties like the one at Bohemian Caverns. But he said his group's efforts have branched out to match Obama's reach.

"We're pulling single mothers who only have a GED," he said. "They're living check to check, but they are giving their last $25 to Obama. They are looking to the future. They want a better life for their kids."

For Wiggins, the campaign he has watched grow over the past six months now feels historic and euphoric.

"This time in our country is going to be one that many years from now, our children [will] ask us where we were when this happened and what we were doing," he said, "just like we ask our parents about the civil rights movement."

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