ORANGEBURG, S.C. — African Americans will make their first major statement about the presidential election Saturday in my native state’s Democratic primary. Here in my hometown, voters I’ve talked to are worried and conflicted — and see the stakes in November as going far beyond ideology to involve history, legacy and the return of a kind of frank racism that many hoped was dead and buried.
All indications are that former vice president Joe Biden will probably win here. His once-formidable lead in the polls dwindled but finally stabilized, and the passionate endorsement he received Wednesday from House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — by far the most powerful and influential Democrat in the state, and the highest-ranking African American in the history of Congress — may have sealed the deal.
It had been unclear whether Clyburn would endorse in the primary at all. But he went all in for his longtime friend, recalling how fond his late wife, Emily, was of Biden — and saying he is more concerned about the future of the country now than he was decades ago, during the conflict and tumult of the civil rights movement.
I heard that same theme from others who are old enough to remember the dying days of Jim Crow segregation: After years of progress on issues of race, the nation seems to have taken a giant step backward.
“It’s like racism is just coming out of the woodwork,” said Bill Hamilton, 70, the retired sports information director at South Carolina State University, one of two historically black colleges in Orangeburg. “Things people wouldn’t say in other times, a few years ago, now they just say it to your face.”
I ran into Hamilton on the SCSU campus, where Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had held a rally earlier in the day with musician John Legend. Such is daily life in the early-primary states. Hamilton said he was “really impressed” by Warren, and he mentioned that he had also attended rallies for Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) before they dropped out of the race. But he said he was leaning toward voting for Biden, and the main reason was President Trump.
“I just have a lot of disdain for Donald Trump,” Hamilton said. “It seems like he’s trying to unravel the legacy of one of our best presidents, the first African American president, Barack Obama. . . . One of the sad things is that he does it with no shame. No shame whatsoever.”
Across town at the Kuckery — a popular lunch spot where the fried chicken is, well, just as fried chicken should be — I heard much the same thing from Juan L. Maultsby: “This election is a referendum on Trump. Trying to get him out.”
But how to do that? I was struck by how African American voters I met here sounded like a panel of cable news pundits, calculating the odds for this or that candidate, gauging momentum, citing recent polls. “I’m all over the place right now,” said Maultsby, 47, a program coordinator at the Institute for African American Research at the University of South Carolina. “I’m leaning toward Biden right now. Bernie [Sanders] is too progressive, but I like some of his ideas. Warren, I like her, but I feel like America is not ready for a woman president.”
Maultsby said he believed “Biden has it in the bag here” in the Palmetto State. “But there is a strong Bernie presence. The young kids seem to like him.”
That may be true on the mostly white USC campus in Columbia. Polls show support for Sanders among young African Americans, too, but on the mostly black SCSU campus here, I didn’t find much of it.
Tyrone Washington, a junior from Beaufort, S.C., said he liked Sanders’s call for eliminating tuition fees at public colleges and universities. But he added that he’s “not too much into politics” and said he didn’t know whom he would vote for. I asked if he intended to vote at all, and he said he did. Perhaps he will.
Simone Graham, a junior from Lake City, S.C., majoring in psychology, said she did follow politics “a little bit” and planned to vote for “either Biden or Elizabeth [Warren].” She liked Warren’s call for student loan forgiveness.
By contrast, Jaevien Akinmola, a sophomore from Manning, S.C., studying agribusiness, was well versed on all the Democratic candidates and their policy positions. But he was “still kind of split between several” of them: Biden, Warren and Sanders. He was particularly interested in their plans for bolstering historically black colleges and universities. (Warren, who indeed has a plan for everything, says she would spend $50 billion to help HBCUs.)
And Serenity Mitchell Wilkerson, a junior from Queens, N.Y., was the lone vote in my unscientific sample for businessman Tom Steyer, whom Wilkerson narrowly prefers over Warren. While much of the country has been bombarded by television ads for billionaire Mike Bloomberg — who is not competing here — South Carolina has received similar treatment from Steyer.
The little I’ve heard about Bloomberg will not gladden the hearts of his campaign advisers. His debate performances discouraged a few voters I talked to and even left an impression of Trump-ishness among a couple of others. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), by contrast, seems to have made a good impression at the debates.
My conversations here did nothing to contradict the polls showing former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg with a paucity of African American support. This is a churchgoing community, and it is fair to say that Southern black preachers, including some in Orangeburg, have not enthusiastically embraced the idea of same-sex marriage. From several people, I heard variations on: “It’s perfectly fine with me, I have no problem with it at all, but I don’t think the country is ready.”
Most of the folks I interviewed said that the specific policies advocated by this candidate or that one were less important than winning the November election. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 73 percent of African Americans believe Trump has made race relations in this country worse, as opposed to just 49 percent of whites who felt that way. Seventy-six percent of black Americans told Pew it was more common for people to openly express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump took office.
I don’t know any African Americans of my generation — meaning they have some memory of Jim Crow — who believed that Obama’s historic election marked the dawning of some sort of “post-racial” era. But I also don’t know any contemporaries who imagined the nation would regress, or who doubt that, under Trump, it has.
The mood of the people I talked with might be described as urgent pragmatism. Like Democrats across the country, they see this as a crucial election and dread the prospect of four more years of Trump. Like everyone else, they seem not to have settled on the surest candidate to win the White House.
If, come November, there is a shortage of real passion among African Americans for the eventual nominee, will grim determination be enough to drive turnout? Maybe we’ll get some idea when we see the figures for black turnout on Saturday. If African Americans in Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia had voted for Hillary Clinton as enthusiastically as they did for Obama, we’d be chronicling Clinton’s reelection campaign.
Voters here do, however, seem ready to give new life to Biden’s campaign. Sanders seems to think so, as evidenced by the fact that he won’t even be in South Carolina on Saturday night and instead will be in Massachusetts, which votes on March 3, Super Tuesday.
The math is still on Sanders’s side — he seems to have the best chance of earning a plurality of delegates before the convention — but Clyburn said last Sunday that Sanders’s self-identification as a socialist would be an “extra burden” in November. The question now is whether Biden does so well here that voters in the Super Tuesday states give him a second look.
The Democrats I spoke with said they’re going to support and vote for the party’s nominee against Trump. What I didn’t find here was a lot of clarity about who that might be.