America Needs More 'Porch Talk' - And Not Just Every Four Years

Hispanic voter voting in polling place
Hispanic voter voting in polling place

By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Every four years, America has a "porch talk" in South Carolina as attention shifts to the first in the south presidential primary.

This year, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders vie for the Democratic nomination in a state where I lived for many years and where Black Americans comprise half of the registered Democrats.

South Carolina has been known as "a bellwether" state that holds its primary early and forecasts which way black voters will swing nationally.

That theory certainly held up in 2008. There were three big Democrats that year. Hilary Clinton. John Edwards. And a young senator from Illinois. We know whose campaign steamrolled the majority of votes.

I remember the enthusiasm and ebullience that year. My mother initially leaned toward Clinton. Then one day close to the primary I called her and Mom (who never admitted to changing her mind) informed me she always supported Obama. Really, Mom?

"We have to stick together" she said.

South Carolina is a Republican-controlled state in which most black voters believe that fidelity to the Democratic Party leverages support for blacks in fights with conservative Republicans over local issues involving economic resources and education. Roadblocks to progress have occurred when voter apathy among blacks and Republican super-majorities have taken hold.

In 2008, Obama won the primary against Hillary Clinton by carrying 78 percent of the black vote. This accurately forecast his national sweep, winning the presidency with the backing of a really quite astonishing 96 percent of black voters.

Eight years later, my Mom has passed and I no longer live in South Carolina.

But in the tradition of "porch talk" (free-flowing and unabashed chit chat conducted on Southern porches) I called home to Charleston, South Carolina, where I couldn't have selected three better conversationalists - African Americans who happened to be supporters of three different Democratic candidates. (That's right - three candidates.)

Pam Gibbs is a retired teachers' assistant, 67, a round-faced, soft spoken woman, experienced with working with children, who tends to hold her peace until she (as Southerners say) "gets riled." Pam has also been a dedicated activist fighting racial disparities in opportunity and education.

She supports Clinton.

"Because of my social work, I get a lot of stuff from progressives online. It reads like we don't know what's in our own best interest. I'm 67. I know something." Pam cites her concern that the Sanders "revolution" is simply unrealistic, literally "a dream ... I think it's a movement full of young, mostly white, people with the attitude, 'This is what we want whether we get it or not.' It's not a movement for low income people."

"He'll lose. Then there will probably be a Republican house, a Republican Senate and a Republican president, and that's scary.

Pam says she felt "confused" after learning that Bernie Sanders only recently became a Democrat. She isn't convinced he warrants the party's support, given that for most of his career he served as an independent. Like most of her friends, Pam is a loyal Democrat. That said, she will vote for Sanders if he prevails.

Polls indicate that many African American voters, especially older blacks have trouble "feeling the Bern," as one newspaper put it, or express concern Sanders' candidacy could decimate the Democratic Party.

Another black Charlestonian, Fletcher Williams, 29, is a multi-media artist whose beautiful, social realist drawings depict the horrors of Black-on-Black crime. Fletcher says only Bernie Sanders represents "my values. I mean he supports the $15 an hour minimum wage, free education, universal healthcare, maternity leave and a real standard of living. I have a friend who lives in Denmark, and he couldn't be happier with the social support."

Fletcher epitomizes the polls that indicate Sanders has strong support among people under thirty. He doesn't care that Sanders isn't a traditional Democrat.

Fletcher doesn't feel the campaign is biased toward "white" issues. "Free higher education is not for white people. It's for all people. And those Wall Street millionaires Sanders wants to tax aren't black."

He says people in an older generation, like Pam Gibbs, have likely experienced being pushed aside and their ideas shot down, but that is no reason to think Sanders' campaign will fail. He says challenges to the status quo, like civil rights and slavery, were thought to be impossible too once.

"There has to be a time that the people stand up."

He agrees with Pam on one point. "The Republicans winning, that's not going to help," he says. Fletcher hesitantly and reluctantly concedes he could vote for Hilary Clinton if she prevails.

A third voter, Muhiyyidin D'baha, 30, is a community organizer with Black Lives Matter. His group met with Bernie Sanders for fifteen minutes, in late 2015 shortly after the controversy when two BLM activists disrupted a Sanders rally in Seattle.

Muhiyyidin prefers Sanders to Clinton, but distrusts the traditional model of "top-down" party politics. He supports Willie Wilson, a little known third candidate from Chicago in the Democratic race.

My conversations left me wishing I could gather Pam Gibbs, Fletcher Williams and Muhiyyidin D'baha together for a real porch talk to debate how "safe bets" vs. "political revolutions," old school vs. new school voting, generational differences, "bottom-up" grassroots movements and a weakening of traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party will influence the black vote. We need to raise the voices of people like Pam, Fletcher and Muhiyyidin.

America needs more porch talk than just every four years.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.