When poll workers arrived at Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in Baldwin Hills at 6 a.m., eager voters were already lined up in the morning darkness. When the election was called for President Obama some 15 hours later, Crenshaw Boulevard erupted in a joyful blast of honking horns.
If 2008 was about history-making and hope, here in the heart of middle-class, black Los Angeles, 2012 was about practicality and pride. Getting to the White House was one thing. What the first African American president accomplished there was quite another.
So what if he did not use his first term to champion their shared slice of this country, the 13% of the population that is African American? Obama went to work, dozens of black voters in Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park said with pride, for all of America.
What Obama has accomplished “means a lot, means a lot, means a lot,” said Cheryl Johnson, 55, as she waited outside the Hillcrest auditorium to snap a picture of her son emerging from a voting booth for the first time.
“Not just for blacks, but for all races — schooling and medical insurance and jobs and so many different things,” she said, of Obama’s first-term accomplishments. “Everyone needs someone fighting for them. You have to stay on your knees and give praise.”
After a contentious four years in office, Obama “was and is the greatest role model presently for our black children,” said retired assistant principal Tanya Grace, who awaited election returns with friends at Crenshaw Live Bar & Grill on Tuesday night.
“He led a wonderful, wonderful campaign,” said Grace, who wore an Obama tee and button for the occasion. “He is a man of character. I know our young black men really have something to look forward to.... He made Martin Luther King’s dream come true.”
In the run-up to election day, there was much speculation that stubbornly high unemployment rates, particularly in minority communities, would damp the enthusiasm of black voters, cutting into an important, traditionally Democratic constituency and hurting Obama’s chances.
Exit polls told a very different story. Sure, the novelty of Obama’s presidency may have worn off, and the whole country is deeply weary of the sluggish economy. But 93% of black voters cast their ballots for Obama on Tuesday, according to exit polling by CNN. That’s down 2 percentage points from 2008. And African American women remained deeply loyal; 96% voted for Obama in both presidential elections.
Ruth Skinner-Poteat could be Exhibit A for deep devotion. The Baldwin Hills resident, 79, remembers being barred from the voting booth as a young woman in Florida. She does not forget “the sacrifices made by our ancestors so that we can vote.” And she knows that racism is nowhere near dead, black president or no.
After casting her ballot at Hillcrest first thing Tuesday, she reached for her cellphone to display a troubling image that has been circulating on the Internet: Obama hung in effigy at a Florida gas station, noose around his neck.
Ugliness aside — “it’s the old crazies who teach the difference in color, the difference in race,” she said — Skinner-Poteat was ebullient, decked out in Obama earrings and one of her many presidential T-shirts. She wears them during the day and goes to bed in them at night.
“I say I sleep with three men,” she cracked. “God the father. God the son. And Barack Obama.”
The line at Hillcrest persisted for several hours in the morning and returned after the workday ended. Sarah Allen, mother of seven, grandmother of 42 and great-grandmother of 69, voted in the early wave.
Seeing a dawdler outside the polling place, she called out after casting her ballot: “Obama ain’t gonna come out and get you! You got to go in and get him!”
Allen certainly did, in 2008 and again Tuesday. Some liberal black pundits blame Obama for high levels of unemployment and incarceration among African Americans and for allowing affirmative action to be chipped away.
Not Allen. Obama, she said, echoing many of her fellow voters here, is “only one person and can only do so much. They accuse him of stuff that weren’t his fault. All he needs is a chance to finish what he started.”
In nearby Leimert Park Village, bookstore owner James Fugate said the excitement this time was a far cry from 2008, when customers started showing up at 11 a.m., milling around, just wanting to talk. After Obama was declared the winner, the streets around Eso Won Books filled with revelers and stayed that way for hours.
Fugate’s shop was quiet Tuesday, and so was the neighborhood. The Rev. Clarence Eziokwu Washington, a neighbor on Degnan Boulevard, wandered in with a stack of posters he’d designed and wanted to put up for sale.
“Obama Back 2 Back,” they declared, looking for all intents and purposes like movie ads, with the president and first lady posed James Bond-like. Photos of the supporting cast were next: Shirley Chisholm and Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells and Rev. King. And finally, the subtitle: “Still Standing on the Shoulders of Our Ancestors and Heroes.”
Washington argues that Obama has had “impact but no metaphysical change.” Technologically, he said, the nation is behind others. And racially? “America continues to be and always has been culturally biased, Jim Crow, [white] standards of beauty.”
Whom did Washington vote for? Obama, of course.