Younger Voters Less Likely To See Race As An Issue

CHICAGO (AP) -- For young voters, Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 is schoolbook history. Even the racially charged 1992 riots in Los Angeles are a distant memory.

The United States is far from a blueprint for racial harmony, but for today's young adults - all born after segregation was outlawed in the mid-1960s - race is not the issue it once was.

They have grown up with Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan among their highest-profile and wealthiest role models. And in their everyday lives, they are much more likely than their elders to have friends of another race, studies show.

Is it any wonder, then, that young adults have been the most willing age group to support a black man for president?

Primary exit polls conducted for The Associated Press illustrate the generational shift that has helped Barack Obama secure the Democratic presidential nomination. About 56 percent of Democrats younger than age 30 supported Obama. That number dropped steadily with each age bracket to a low of 30 percent for voters 65 and older.

Many young voters say a diverse background is an asset for a candidate.

"Rather than just being tolerant of race, we embrace and accept our differences," says Alisha Thomas Morgan, a 29-year-old black state lawmaker in Georgia. "We all recognize that racism still exists. But I think younger people are much more willing to get over it."

They also are more accustomed to seeing people of color in positions of power. The country has, for instance, had a black secretary of state for the past seven-plus years.

"I shouldn't say we're taking it for granted. But it's not especially strange to us," says Tobin Van Ostern, a junior at George Washington University who is spending his summer in Chicago as a leader for Students for Barack Obama.

Van Ostern, who is white, says he understands that Obama's victory is historic.

"But it's one that seems appropriate for the direction the country is going," he says. "In numerous ways, it presents a new image of the United States to the world - and not just because of the color of his skin."

Throughout the primary season, Obama supporters endured jabs from pundits and Hillary Rodham Clinton backers who called them "latte drinkers," among other labels. To them, it seemed to suggest elitism and the notion that young adults were taken with the Illinois senator because it was trendy.

Certainly, the chance to vote for a black man is part of the appeal, Morgan says. "It's fine if they vote for him because he's African-American, as long as they don't stop there," she says. "But I would be voting for Obama whether he was white or whatever. The fact that he is African-American is a plus."

The way Patricia Turner sees it, Obama's race is just one factor that makes him more accessible to younger voters. Turner is a professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Davis, a diverse campus where she says no one racial or ethnic group is the majority.

She recalls a conversation at a recent university dinner where her table included a few Asian-American students and a white woman in her 30s who was married to a man of mixed race. Asked what struck them about Obama, they listed everything from his age and rearing by a single mother to the fact that he is biracial.

"There's something about the sophisticated and complex ethnic identity that resonates with younger voters as well," says Turner, who is black. "Younger people are able to say 'we' - and that 'we' includes Barack Obama."

But exit polls also show that young Hispanics were more likely to vote for Clinton, as Hispanics were in general. Many people believe the complicated racial history between blacks and Hispanics has played a role in that outcome.

Some wonder if the welcoming attitude toward a black president has its limits, even among the most racially open young Obama supporters.

Young Han, 25, said race played little role in his decision to vote for Obama in the Washington state caucuses. But he wonders if his peers would be uncomfortable if Obama were a different type of black candidate.

"A person who talks in a black English, engages in 'identity politics,' and comes out of a marching, yelling-out-of-a-megaphone background might be considered 'really' black, whereas a Harvard-educated lawyer who looks non-threatening may be just a guy who happens to be black," says Han, a Korean-American who recently worked for a Washington, D.C., civic education foundation teaching students about government. "Whether this is a valid way by which to judge someone's competence or legitimacy is whole other question. But I think that's how things work."

Like many others, he saw attempts to link Obama to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as a way to play on that dynamic.

Yet the Wright controversy did not seem to resonate much with young people, even at predominantly white, relatively conservative Clemson University, where political science professor Joseph Stewart Jr. monitored the reaction.

That is striking, says Stewart, a white Southerner who came of age during the civil rights movement. "I did not think I'd live long enough to see a black candidate who was taken this seriously," he says. "I thought racism was just too deeply ingrained."

He sees desegregation as "one of those subtle changes" that have influenced younger generations.

He also has found that many of the youngest voters have little sense of relatively recent incidents of racial strife - for example, the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Rodney King.

"So a lot of the acceptance and the lack of relevance of race is simply a lack of history," Stewart says. "We usually think that's a bad thing - but there may be some positives, too."

For Turner, the progress made is notable and moving.

At age 52, she has vivid memories of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. So Obama's candidacy is a reminder of how far the nation has come.

"There have been times in the Obama campaign when I think, 'I wish Dad could've seen that' or 'I wish my mother were here' to just see him holding his own," Turner says of her parents, who are no longer living.

"They would have been proud."

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  • by Tim Location: La Grange on Jun 7, 2008 at 08:11 AM
    That's Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now!" on Free Speech TV and Link TV. My apology.
  • by Tim Location: La Grange on Jun 7, 2008 at 08:10 AM
    As a free thinking progressive, I believe I will seriously look at a third party candidate for the first time. I would love to sit down one afternoon with Norm Chomsky, Arianna Huffington, and Amy Goodwin and discuss all of the candidates and what they seem and will stand for.
  • by Anonymous on Jun 7, 2008 at 06:04 AM
    You know. I'm white and I agree that I don't owe blacks anything because I'm white. But most black people I know don't treat me like I owe them anything. This is 2008 people, I pick my friends by who they are not what color they are. If a black person treets me like I owe them something then most likely I won't like them. Same as if a white person acts like they think they are above someone else then I won't like them either. God didn't make white people to rule the world you know.
  • by Anonymous on Jun 7, 2008 at 05:58 AM
    After reading all of these comments I want to get out of Eastern NC more than ever. Yall need to go on Jerry Springer.
  • by BIG J Location: SNOWHILL on Jun 6, 2008 at 03:50 PM
    I don't care about the color of a mans skin.I did not live 200 years ago and don't care what happened back then. Yes I was born WHITE. GOD made me what I am. I went to war and gave up an arm and a leg.for the people of the U.S.A. So I own the Blacks nothing and I will say this and if people don't like it I DON'T CARE- But if Obama gets in the White House this county will go to the DOGS.
  • by Jonathan on Jun 6, 2008 at 12:48 PM
    White guilt and typical media spin will get Obama in the white house. Not the person. The media is all over this guy and we have no chance of a fair election. He has no business being the president of this country and it has NOTHING to do with his skin color. Look at the people he surrounds himself with, he obviously is a poor judge of character or is just plain stupid.
  • by bandanaman247 on Jun 6, 2008 at 10:37 AM
    right on Matt couldnt of said it better myself...its wont never die because the blacks wont let it ..somebody please tell me what I owe the black man. I'll tell you NOT A DARN THING

    Edited slightly

  • by Matt on Jun 6, 2008 at 09:02 AM
    Amen stacy!! It's a no win situation. If you vote for McCain, you are a racist. So many young people will vote for Obama to prove just that, they are not racist. And we all know nobody wins if Obama wins!! Im sick of feeling sorry for being born white. It seems that because I was born white, I owe something to black people for their very distant relatives that were slave 200 yrs ago. I don't owe them a thing!! It's over, let it go!! Guess what, Im pretty sure my relatives came from europe where they were told what they had to do and had no freedom...Enough is enough. And now im sure Al and Jesse will be at my door next week!!Let them come on, I have some things to say to them too!!!

    Comment Edited.

  • by Mr. Bob on Jun 6, 2008 at 08:56 AM
    That's a joke.
  • by Anonymous on Jun 6, 2008 at 08:51 AM
    Stacy - you shouldn't judge all blacks just because of what some have said. That works both ways you know. Look at the person not the color.
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