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. His secret weapon? African immigrants, turning out the vote like never before.
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.
Most of the Africans I met working for Obama were white-collar, well-educated, and tended to be more conversant with policy than the vast majority of people on whose doors they knocked. Kihara and Kwame Boadi, a Ghanaian volunteer, study at the JHU Center for Strategic and International Studies; Araia and Teweld are aides in the U.S. Congress; Guled Kassim, a Somali ex-Marine, has run for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates.
This diversity of interest and fluency with politics is good preparation for speaking effectively to voters on the wide range of issues that have peppered the campaign. But those I spoke with weren’t particularly fixated on Africa policy—far more care about the direction of the United States. “A lot of us are Africans, but a lot of us are also Americans,” said Selam Kebram, who was born in Eritrea but grew up in Las Vegas. “We have issues we care abut too—housing, health care, education.”
But actually connecting with voters can be tough. By virtue of the campaign’s system of organizing, many volunteers were sent to undecided homes and Republican ones, which had the potential to create hostilities. “Middle-aged Republicans were rarely confused as to who to vote for,” Haile said gingerly. “They say, ‘I don’t vote Democrat and I won’t vote Democrat.’”
Then there is the issue of race—one of the most discussed but least understood elements of the 2008 election. Some ADO members who made calls on Obama’s behalf have marked surprised reactions to their foreign accents. Kihara, who traveled to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., to knock on doors during the campaign’s final stretch, said some whites were genuinely confused to see his face at the door. “It was, ‘What are you doing here?’ They looked to see if someone was behind me.”
But he noted that the reports of racial animus, particularly in Appalachia, may be overstated. Kihara pointed out that the town of Roanoke—at the heart of what John McCain’s campaign has called “real Virginia,” had a black mayor for years, and surmised that in this economy, “the Appalachian man has other insecurities aside from race.”
Some African canvassers shied away from sensitive issues, like immigration, criminal justice or housing policy. “Some issues you don’t want to bring up with white people. It’s a black thing; you don’t want to go that route,” said Michel Mushibuka, who is from Burundi. Others see the potential for progress in confronting those issues. “I bring it up,” Mokuena said, “because we may be on different sides on the immigration debate but… us being on different sides isn’t going to make it go away.”
The doorstep political interactions I observed—diversified by race, class and home country—are a poignant image in a changing state, signs of not just a new Virginia but a changing nation.
And these African volunteers see a special role for themselves in this campaign. The majority of the young people working for Obama have very different histories. “For the most part they are white,” Kebram said. “I think we lend credence to this whole movement. [Obama] speaks to everyone—young Americans, young black Americans, young African Americans. It’s a weird kind of hodgepodge, but it’s important for people to see that young black people care, too.”
Dayo Olopade is the Washington Reporter for The Root.