Some of the sages who cut hair in Charleston’s black community hear a lot of chatter about the upcoming Democratic primary. Most of it runs in favor of Hillary Clinton.
“I think she’s taking the same path that (President Barack) Obama is taking,” said Gerald Rivers Jr., who cuts hair at The Lab barbershop on Spring Street. “I think it’s right on line with his views and what he started.”
A few blocks away at the Family Barbershop, veteran hair-cutter Kenneth Jordan points to the fact that under Obama’s eight years in the White House, the troops have come home from overseas, the economy has recovered from its 2008 low and gas prices are currently hovering around $1.60 a gallon.
“I think it’s just a continuation of Obama,” Jordan said in support of Clinton’s bid.
South Carolina’s black vote by no means is monolithic. But indicators this year are that the strong majority is breaking toward Clinton, the two-term first lady and Obama’s former secretary of state, over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. To many, Clinton remains the comfortable extension of Obama, while Sanders is too late in making South Carolina inroads. Plus, there are things like his pledge to provide tuition-free college education, an idea that isn’t immediately gaining credence as realistic among some voters.
“You can’t get him to sign a promissory note, can you?” Rivers joked.
Eight years ago, Obama — the nation’s eventual first black president — steam-rolled through South Carolina, collecting more than 295,091 individual votes, roughly 55 percent of the turnout.
If the current trends continue, Clinton should do even better than that as the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll from last week gave Clinton a secure 60 percent-32 percent lead in South Carolina.
But there’s also evidence that indicates the 2016 race is not so much that Clinton is an exceptional candidate, but rather that she’s the best available on the ballot, forcing blacks to weigh pragmatism against idealism. Many black voters like Bernie Sanders and his policy proposals, but worry he can’t win in the general election, said the Rev. Nelson Rivers, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church and vice president of religious affairs and external relations for the National Action Network.
Rivers fears Sanders might go down as the George “McGovern for the Democrats,” referring to the liberal Democrat who lost against conservative GOP President Richard Nixon, who won by a landslide in 1972.
That’s a risk most black people are unwilling to take, Rivers said. So they support Clinton, not because she will solve all the problems facing blacks, but because she will not likely make those problems worse.
Besides, her Rolodex is bigger than Sanders’ and she is more familiar to blacks than Sanders, and she might push the wheels of progress forward, at least slightly, Rivers said.
“For a lot of African-Americans who vote and participate, this is not about how much they like Bernie’s rhetoric, or Hillary’s,” Rivers said. “This is about who is best to stop this group of Republicans, (because) all of them would be detrimental to the interests of blacks and, I would say, women in America. Black people just know that if a Republican gets elected things are going to get worse for black people.”
Black women are expected to make up the bulk of the voters who come out for Saturday’s Democratic primary. Last week, a few hundred women gathered at the International Longshoremen’s Association on Morrison Drive for the Power of the Sister Vote Town Hall Meeting. The event, sponsored by the Black Women’s Roundtable and ESSENCE magazine, focused on what black women want from the next president.
“The African-American community isn’t just hurting, we’re crippled and wounded,” said participant Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, adding that much of the trouble stems from blacks having a hard time finding quality jobs with livable wages.
A study by ESSENCE magazine and the Black Women’s Roundtable in September found that the top three issues for black women were affordable health care, livable wages and college affordability — all issues that have surfaced as causes for both Clinton and Sanders. For millennials, generally considered to be people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, the top issue was college costs.
Issues like those are expected to play out Saturday for voters like Zanai Wallace, 25, who attended the roundtable event. She said she needs loans to cover the cost of her college education and that paying them back won’t be easy. She thinks college affordability, along with feminist issues, are the most important issues in the election.
Her mother, Zatavier Wallace, 43, said education costs also are important to her. But what’s most important is simply people getting involved in the government process, she said. She hopes that people who get energized from the presidential election use that energy for local matters. “I would like to see this type of involvement for local elections,” she said.
Since 1972, an average of 85 percent of black voters in the U.S. have cast ballots for Democrats in presidential elections. About 93 percent of black voters supported Obama in 2012.
Despite the approaching primary and the media attention that goes with it, some Charleston-area voters remain undecided. Sitting in You-Nique Hair in North Charleston on Tuesday while listening to the radio and waiting for customers, stylist Ebonee Washington said she’s not sure who will get her vote, partly out of apathy.
“It’s not as exciting as it was eight years ago,” she said. “I don’t think Willie Wilson has a chance. Who is he, even? That only leaves Hillary and Bernie, and I’m really torn about who will be best for us. There is so much bad talk I really don’t know who to believe.”
Her main concerns are the job security and public safety, she said.
In the chair beside Washington, her sister LaShawnda Simmons said she didn’t plan to vote at all.
“I don’t like the options,” she said. “I know a lot of people will say I’m wrong but that’s how I feel.”
But at Ava Hair near Goose Creek, customer Aaliyah Singletary of North Charleston said she is a Clinton fan.
“I just don’t ‘feel the Bern,’ ” she said. “I probably don’t know all the issues but I think Hillary will look out for women and minorities better than he would, so I’m putting my trust in her.”
Back at the Family Barber Shop, barber Thad Miller spent part of Tuesday with customer Jewel Coan, who said she is voting for Clinton because she brings experience and a different perspective to the table.
Miller said he’s leaning toward backing Clinton too, saying he’s not sure about Sanders’ boasts. “You can make a lot of promises but that doesn’t mean it’s going to change,” he said.
Adam Parker, Brenda Rindge and Diane Knich contributed to this report.