"Never could I have anticipated . . . a black man being at the top of the ticket"

In central Montana, one of the least racially diverse areas in the United States, residents grapple with the idea of voting for a black man.
By Wil Haygood
The Washington Post
Thursday, October 30, 2008


Cattle ranchers in the high plains of central Montana sometimes come across square rock formations just beneath the ground's surface. They have no doubt about their origins.

"They're the foundation of old one-room schools," says Dan Teigen, pointing to a spot where he recently made just such a discovery.

Teigen's family settled in these parts more than 100 years ago. The dot-size town carries the family name. There's little in Teigen now but the husk of an old hotel and the huge Teigen ranch that sweeps up and around the McDonald Creek Valley.

Among those who came here over the years were the descendants of Irish, German and Scottish immigrants. Their families continue to populate the spare landscape between the towns of Roundup, Grass Range, Teigen and Lewistown.

But one group that never settled in any numbers here, or in any part of Montana, were blacks. There has never been a black schoolteacher, mail carrier or law enforcement officer in any of these towns. As those school foundations attest, there is history here, but no black history -- no frayed emotions over the flapping of the Confederate flag, no sit-ins for voting rights, no debates over the duties of the Talented Tenth.

So how do the people here get to know the accomplishments, artistry, pain and jubilation of more than 36 million Americans? How do they begin to understand Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, who could become the first black president? Particularly when they may never have seen a black mayor, a black school principal or even a black shift supervisor?

Martha Farnsworth Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau and now a consultant on demographic issues, says that whites in states such as Montana are faced with a unique situation when it comes to Obama. "They really are being asked to think on two different planes: One is saying, 'I don't know people like this,' and the other is saying, 'Okay, I'll have to look at what the country needs.' Now, how they play those two feelings out is the issue here."

Montana, where just 0.4 percent of the 945,000 residents are black (6.4 percent are Native American), is one of the least racially diverse states in the country. But blacks are the most highly segregated minority in America, according to the Census Bureau. And like here, there are many neighborhoods across the country where whites' daily experience of blacks is limited to chance encounters and what they see on TV.

"I remember being in Billings as a little kid," says Teigen, 39, an Obama supporter running for the state House. "I was in a grocery store. I saw a black man and I said, 'Wow, that's a black man.' It occurred to me that that was the first black man I'd ever seen in Montana."

There is a certain kind of innocence to his words. Which is part of the complexity, as you travel around the ragged buttes of this region. With a black man inching closer to the White House, many folks here just might have to grapple with a situation they've never faced before.

Still, notes David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, where he studies demographics and race, "the days of Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' are over. These people see Will Smith and Halle Berry on TV. And the college football teams in these states are certainly apt to have blacks." He goes on: "Colorado has a very small black population -- 4 percent -- and yet in the late '90s they had two black statewide elected officials."

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