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Where hope for Obama cuts both ways

Will white voters sell Barack Obama out?

Is hope for dopes?

Did John McCain bury himself -- or seal the deal -- by picking Sarah Palin?

Is change really possible in Washington, D.C, where wealth and power will always preside?

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Over the next two months, there will not be a single moment of silence at Lawrence Tolliver’s Barber Shop on Florence near Western. Not with so many questions on the table.

Ministers, professors, cops, pharmacists, teachers, retirees and others will file into Mr. Tolliver’s hallowed parlor, where political apathy is detested, meekness is weakness, and opinions are expressed loudly enough to be heard in Long Beach. They’ll come whether they need a haircut or not, because history is on the line.

On Nov. 4, we may elect the first African American president.

If not, we’ll elect the first female vice president.

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The South L.A. shop has its share of conservative views, especially on crime, teen pregnancy and derelict dads. But Martin Luther King’s portrait hangs over the price list (Haircut -- $12), Obama posters are everywhere, and John McCain probably couldn’t find a single vote at Tolliver’s if he promised government-funded haircuts for life.

(I promise to visit the first pro-McCain barbershop that invites me to hear the other side. Anybody reading today in Newport Beach?)

“Barack sounded like MLK and JFK last night,” Mr. Tolliver was saying Friday morning. He was talking, of course, about Sen. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech the previous night in Denver. By comparison, he said, “John McCain sounds like Lawrence Welk.”

The shop TV was blasting the news of Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate. Although some customers feared she might steal a few female votes from Obama, the crowd was more concerned that a President McCain would keel over while in office and be replaced by a relatively inexperienced politician who runs a state with a population equal to that of Bakersfield and Santa Ana.

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“They say she’s got executive experience,” Mr. Tolliver scoffed. “I’ve got executive experience too. I run a barbershop.”

As for GOP criticism of Obama, Mr. Tolliver said:

“If they saw Barack Obama walk on water, they’d say, ‘You see? I told you he couldn’t swim.’ ”

The Rev. Ron Simmons of West Angeles Church of God in Christ said the proceedings in Denver were overwhelming.

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“I went from almost crying to thinking it was a dream and I was going to wake up and Bush had another year and a half to go.”

He recalled his family’s move in 1968 to an all-white block in Inglewood, where the owner of the corner grocery store ordered Simmons and his siblings to enter the store one at a time. That was until Simmons’ uncle had a good talk with the owner.

“I thought about my uncle last night,” Simmons said. “He wasn’t MLK, but he was a warrior for his relatives. I want to go put a flag on his grave at the cemetery. When Barack came on stage, my mother put her hands up over her eyes. I said, ‘What are you doing, Mom?’ She said, ‘If they’re going to kill him, they’re going to kill him now.’ ”

It’s that feeling, especially among the elders, that makes Tolliver’s regulars wonder if times have changed enough.

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“You almost don’t want to get too happy about Obama,” Simmons said.

He’d do well, said Bill James, a big cheese with an executive search firm, to hammer issues the next couple of months.

Would he?

At the risk of getting my head shaved without asking, I suggested that Obama may have a problem delivering on his pledges judging by his Thursday night speech. He said he’d fix everything from schools to healthcare to housing while cutting taxes for 95% of Americans, and he made it sound as simple as eliminating waste and closing a few loopholes.

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Does anyone believe any of that math will pencil out?

Rod Wright, the former assemblyman now running for state Senate, half joked that Obama’s great advantage is not having done much in office. It means there isn’t much to blame him for.

AIDS-prevention activist Tony Wafford, meanwhile, played clever contrarian by insisting nothing much will change with a black man sleeping in the White House, because the same moneyed interests will still run the country. He also warned that if things were to go badly for a black president, “some people” would be overjoyed.

“How can it change?” Wafford asked.

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Mr. Tolliver took the challenge. Shears in hand, he looked like a bull ready to charge.

“You were looking at change last night,” he snorted, saying that Aug. 28 is a memorable day in history for many reasons.

First and foremost, it’s his wife’s birthday.

In 1955 on that day, Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old, was tortured, disfigured and killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

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In 1963, MLK delivered his “I have a dream” speech.

And in 2008, Obama accepted his party’s nomination as a presidential candidate.

“That’s change, brother,” Tolliver bellowed. “I want to tell you, that is change, and I’m proud to be an American. I am proud to be an American, and that’s why you see that flag flying out there.”

Wafford wasn’t backing down.

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“We still live in a black and white America,” he said.

“How could he win Iowa if nothing has changed?” Tolliver retorted, and now he could be heard in Long Beach. “The state is 97% white, and he won.”

“That was just a caucus,” intoned a killjoy.

Yeah, said Wafford, and what’s Tolliver going to do when the police pull him over for driving while black -- tell them it’s a new day because Obama won Iowa?

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“The chief of police” comes in and sits “right there,” Tolliver said of LAPD boss Bill Bratton. And that’s change too.

Don’t miss the moment, Tolliver warned, and don’t diminish what Obama represents.

The hope Mr. Tolliver feels is real. He and his wife sent all their kids to college and they all got jobs, and Obama represents the next step of that progress.

What could hold more promise, he asked, than a president who knows two different worlds?

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“He’s a black man, but he’s also half white,” he said. “He’s unique. He’s different. He doesn’t have all the hang-ups we have. When he was a little boy and he woke up and saw his mama, she was white.”

The customers came and went. The conversation ebbed and flowed, but it never slowed.

It won’t for weeks to come.

--

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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