Red State, Black Ties

African immigrants get out the vote in Virginia.


It’s amazing to think that, in the closing weeks of this election, the once solidly Republican state of Virginia has moved squarely into Barack Obama’s column. Obama has made sure to do little to rock the boat, and his army of backers has been coached to stay on message lest the red-staters who have come over to his side get a last-minute case of the jitters.

Among the many wildly counterproductive scenarios one could imagine would be sending a team of African immigrant Obama supporters to knock on doors of white voters in rural Virginia. Remember how well that worked for John Kerry? Sending snotty college kids from New York City to woo small-town Ohio voters was, well, disastrous.

But the shifting demographics of the “new south” have changed the game. At least that’s what a group called African Diaspora for Obama believes. The group, a kind of pan-African political hit squad made up of phone-banking, fundraising Africans in America, has been sending teams to canvass undecided voters in the battleground state since mid-summer.

Week after week, swarms of young Africans turned up at a shopping plaza in Alexandria to get their marching orders for Obama and senatorial candidate Mark Warner. “We have made sure that every campaign office… recognizes that there are 20, 30, 40 Africans going to canvass in Virginia,” said Moorosi Mokuena, a South African lawyer who served as a member of his country’s national congress. “We knocked on 600 doors on our first day.”

ADO focused on turf in Prince William County, reportedly on pace to become northern Virginia’s first minority-majority county. It has “the biggest Democratic demographic profile but is among the lowest for turnout,” said Yodit Teweld, who knocked on doors multiple times a week. But even that may change—a confederation of 30 Ethiopian cab drivers recently donated their fares to get-out-the-vote transport efforts on Election Day. Adaeze Okongwu, a Nigerian who works for Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, has hit Virginia and South Carolina for Obama and said, “When Africans go canvassing, anything can happen.”

As one would expect, the African crowd is heavily for the Illinois senator, whose family story is so like many of their own. “[Obama] is really important as an image buster,” said Kevin Kihara, a Kenyan graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. “His identity is cross-continental, not north African or south African or west African or east African.”

Semhar Araia, a member of the ADO steering committee, describes the group as a “grassroots coalition of Africans living in America who support Obama. We are afro-Caribbeans, afro-Latinos, African Americans.” The organization is well-networked, coordinating with the Urban League and the NAACP as well as the Obama campaign itself.

Some Africans had worked informally with the campaign to contribute ideas, Kihara told me over some “Kenyan” coffee that he said was anything but. “They send e-mails back and forth on esoteric subjects,” like venture capital, Darfur and the Niger Delta. “How that plays into Obama winning, I don’t know,” he lamented. “There need to be more Africans on the ground.”

So ADO has helped provide a political voice for Africans in the area, and a means to make a real impact in a close race.

Martha Haile, an Eritrean member of the coalition, first tried canvassing in Ohio back in February. “There weren’t too many Africans out there,” she laughed. But as the race ramped up in late summer she resumed her canvassing work for Obama, visiting vastly different communities in northern Virginia. “I went from all-white to middle- to upper-class, then an old, all-black neighborhood,” she said.