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September 12th, 2007 12:00 am JAMES PITKIN | News Stories

Black Like We

Portland’s black community has Barack Obama’s back. Or do they?

SEA OF LOVE: In Portland, Obama had the white stuff.
IMAGE: Don ryan for Associated press

Charles Guinn stood in a line stretching halfway around the Oregon Convention Center—one of 4,000 people waiting to hear Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speak on Sept. 7.

While Justin Timberlake crooned for white girls across the street at the Rose Garden, Obama brought out prominent members of Portland’s black community last week. Guinn is black, like about one in every 20 faces in line—about the same ratio as the 6.6 percent African-American population in Portland, statistically the whitest major city in America.

In Portland, the Illinois senator got a mix of balk and awe from local blacks when they were asked how the always-uncomfortable subject of race plays out in deciding which candidate to support.

“He seems to be saying the right things, but I want to see and hear him in person,” said Guinn, a 42-year-old real-estate investor. “There is a group that is behind him just because he’s black. I wish it wasn’t an issue, but it is.”

To be fair, Obama is only 50 percent black. And his odds of securing the nomination are probably lower than that. But his one-night sweep through Portland netted $200,000 in ticket sales and made him only the third Democratic candidate to stop here, along with U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Charles Jordan, one of two African-Americans to have been on the Portland City Council, says the black community here is firmly behind Obama.

“For the first time, you’re talking about having a serious candidate,” says Jordan, who likes Obama but says he hasn’t committed. “And there is part of it, that he is ours, that he is me, and winning and losing is more than just winning and losing.”

But race also cut the other way. Some questioned if the late outpouring of support (the day before the event, organizers expected only 2,000 people) was just a symptom of white guilt.

Former state Rep. JoAnn Bowman (D-Portland) says going to see a mixed-race candidate “is an easy way for so-called progressives to feel like they are doing something positive.”

Bowman, who’s undecided but leaning toward Edwards, says blacks are by no means united behind Obama, who mostly draws “suburban white folks.”

The latest statewide poll released Aug. 21 shows Obama in second place, trailing Clinton by 8 percentage points. Clinton and Edwards have formed state steering committees with big-name members, but Obama has not. So far three Democratic state legislators—all white—have endorsed him: Reps. Chip Shields, Ben Cannon and Larry Galizio.

Charles Bowles, director of the skill center at Portland Community College, says supporters are drawn to Obama regardless of his race. “This is a statement about people no longer willing to settle for the status quo,” says Bowles, who is black.

“You’re taking away from him to say it’s just because he’s black,” Guinn says. “I hear your questions, and they’re valid. They are on everybody’s mind.”

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