The View from the Third Ward


For the last several weeks I’ve been posting Electoral College predictions on a hallway grease board at Texas Southern University, where I’ve been teaching journalism for the past two years. The last story I put up reported that nine different aggregations of polling data predicted Obama to win.

But folks at this historically black college are understandably nervous. The secretary for the dean of the School of Communication, Linda Wynn, asked me if I was really sure about all those numbers I had posted on the grease board. Are you hearing something else? I asked. Well, yes, she said, and then I noticed the twinkle in her eye. Fox News, she said.

Another reality. I’m not sure how Fox gets its numbers, but there is a lot of gut feeling, from Rush Limbaugh to George Will, that Romney will win. To them this is a signal moment in American history, to turn back the big-government, socialist handouts and “take back” the country. This morning on Fox a black commentator declared that Obama might win if he stayed on the East Coast and looked after storm victims. Instead he is campaigning on “revenge.” Revenge is an interesting projection, a word that seems to fit the Republican campaign rhetoric more than the Democratic.

I suppose it would be rude for Republican pundits to declare that Nate Silver of the New York Times is right and the polls show the momentum belongs to Obama. Tomorrow will be a new day, a day to talk about revenge if Obama wins, a day to talk about revenge if Romney wins.

My students say that those African Americans who are opposed to Obama’s re-election bring up his support of same-sex marriage and abortion. A few are opposed to his health care bill. That is, social issues rule rather than the economy.

There was a little flurry of excitement this morning when students brought up the issue of Romney and tampons. Seemed he was against women using them and the Republicans might abolish them. A learning moment. When we Googled the story it seemed to be a hoax that some naïve liberals fell for.

The ever-alert Fox News had a picture this morning of a Black Panther, dressed in black beret and black combat fatigues tucked into paratrooper’s boots. Now there is a scary image. He was supposed to have been standing near a polling place in Philadelphia. William Kristol thought he bore more investigation.

The Philadelphia Panthers have been a sore point with a Houston-based group of tea partiers called True the Vote. True the Vote believes that the Panthers engaged in some electoral shenanigans that Eric Holder at the Justice Department refused to investigate thoroughly. A black conspiracy. True the Vote will have its poll watchers at the elections. Two years ago some of them were accused of intimidating voters in Houston’s Third and Fifth Wards, predominately black neighborhoods.

The other image that is lingering is that of a photograph of an Obama effigy hung with a rope noose at a Shell gas station. The gas station is supposedly in Jacksonville, Florida, but that doesn’t seem certain.

My students are offended but not horrified. They’re surprised that there might be that level of residual hate. Most of them have been stopped by police while driving and have been treated rudely, and were indignant.

They agreed that the shadow of racism hangs over the country and the election. I told them about Faulkner’s famous saying: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

Two years ago at St. Mary’s Church, a polling place in the Third Ward, one of the tea party activists pitched a scene at St. Mary’s and was asked to leave. But it had been quiet all day, said the campaigners camped out a hundred feet from the polls. The True the Vote poll watchers are probably not needed in Texas, which is guaranteed to vote Republican. Reports from Ohio indicate that some of them have shown up there.

I had hoped to camp out at Obama headquarters in the Third Ward and wait for the results and talk to the campaign workers. But the Obama campaign is tightly controlled, and I would need permission from Chicago. A couple of my emails failed to get through and I decided to watch at home. Silver gives Obama very high odds for winning. Some indignant pundits, such as Joe Scarborough, have been saying it’s a tossup. Fifty-fifty. A cliff-hanger. That makes a better story, perhaps, but never argue about numbers with a man who can run 25,000 different computer simulations in the time it takes to make a pot of coffee.

Obama’s headquarters in the Third Ward are housed in a remodeled gas station, the old-time kind covered in stucco with a portico. Texas has been written off. For weeks a team of volunteers has been making calls to Florida voters. Laptops dial thousands of phone numbers of uncommitted voters and when someone answers, a volunteer picks up a cell phone and makes a pitch.

If Florida goes for Obama, some of the credit will be owed to the volunteers in that old gas station, said Daniel Boettger, a young man who’s been working there for the last two weeks.

This is Boettger’s first campaign. He didn’t manage to vote in the last presidential election, when he was attending Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. He’s as optimistic about the numbers as Nate Silver. He said he’s been so busy at the volunteer center he hasn’t had time to cash the small checks the campaign has sent him. If the Republicans are making out this election as critical, so is Boettger. Electing Obama was one thing. To fail to re-elect him would be a terrible setback.

After the election he’ll have to figure out what’s next. He had a sales job, but hated it. He’d like to do something to make a difference. He’s thinking about law school. I get the feeling he would like to settle down somewhere. He grew up “all over,” which is to say, his parents were both in the Air Force. His father was German, his mother, African American. He has green eyes, a light tan complexion and reminds me of the man he is campaigning for, the man Nate Silver says has a 90.9 percent chance of winning.

Michael Berryhill is associate professor and chair of journalism at Texas Southern University. He is also the author of The Trials of Eroy Brown, the Murder Case that Shook the Texas Prisons, from the University of Texas Press.