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Gender or race: Black women voters face tough choices in S.C.

  • Story Highlights
  • Black women expected to make up one-third of all democratic voters in S.C.
  • Women are torn between voting their race, or voting their gender
  • Analysts: Black women more engaged, politically powerful in 2008 race
  • Many say they're focused on issues such as healthcare, education, economy
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By Randi Kaye
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CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- At Anjay's Salon in Charleston, the only thing louder than the hair dryer is the chorus of political opinions.


Analysts say black women are more engaged and hold tremendous power in selecting the Democratic nominee.

On this day, owner Angela Jackson is outnumbered. She is the only one supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama in South Carolina's Democratic primary Saturday.

"When you apply for a job, they ask you, do you have experience? They hire you based on experience. Hillary's been in office how long?" Jackson asks.

Customer Carol Singleton responds, "For me, Hillary, yes, she was a wife of a president, but she was not a president, so she doesn't earn credit for more experience than Obama. To me they're equal."

Stylist Shanese Jones says, "I just feel like it's his time. I think he's ready." Video Watch women say what's important to them »

While three say they're undecided, the rest of the women in the salon say they plan to vote for Obama.

Analysts say black women this year never have been more engaged in a political campaign or held such power in determining the Democratic nominee.

Recent polls show black women are expected to make up more than a third of all Democratic voters in South Carolina's primary in five days.

For these women, a unique, and most unexpected dilemma, presents itself: Should they vote their race, or should they vote their gender?

No other voting bloc in the country faces this choice.

Democratic analyst Jehmu Greene says, "We've all wanted the day to come where there was a black person in the White House, where there was going to be a woman in the White House. I don't think we imagined it would be having to decide one or the other."

Greene says women, including herself, face pressure to vote their race. In the African-American community, there is a perception that race trumps gender, she says.

Clinton supporters are seen as sellouts, Greene and others say.

Hairdresser Shontell Horlback, who is undecided, says, "It's not like I'm selling out, not that I'm not keeping it real 'cause I am, but keeping it real is actually the best candidate for the job."

Jackson, the Clinton supporter, says she doesn't care what others think. "They don't pay my bills. And they're not attached to my belly. Nobody is attached to my belly but me. They don't feed me, clothe me. I don't care what they think. ... She's a woman, I'm a woman."

Jackson met Clinton at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dinner in November. A picture of them together is boldly displayed in her salon.

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A half a dozen pictures of salon employees with former President Clinton also are on what Jackson calls her "Wall of Fame."

He visited the shop last fall to drum up votes for his wife.

Salons are a target for the campaigns -- across the state they have turned into caucuses of sorts. They're where women gather and gossip.

Among them is Toni Dawson: "I make the decision because with Hillary, so many Republicans and independents hate her so much that if she was to become president, I think she would get nothing done because there is so much hate for her," she says. "With Obama, he's a fresh face. I think he can unite everybody."

For many here, the decision may come down to experience versus grass-roots energy and excitement.

Greene says, "Black women are really politically savvy, and the question of experience is weighing heavy on their mind. Maybe race does trump gender as they're looking at this decision, but I think they also put a very high premium on experience, and that in itself is the real dilemma they are facing."

Obama supporter Jones reminds the others that "we can't focus on what Bill Clinton did for the U.S."

"We can thank him for that. He's no longer our president anymore," she says. "We need to focus on her and what she can do to make our country better."

While race and gender play a role, most women here say they plan to vote based on the issues.

They rank health care, education and the economy in order of importance.

Women say the candidates' spouses likely also will be part of the decision.

Some black women says they consider Michelle Obama a "rock star." They say they are impressed with her strength and like the idea of a strong black woman in the White House if Obama were to go all the way.

Bill Clinton also connects with black women. They say he's committed to civil rights and African-Americans.

And of course, there is the "Oprah" factor. The famous talk-show host is supporting Obama and has campaigned for him in the state.

Greene says that Oprah Winfrey "opened up the door for black women to take a closer look at him. She said, 'This is my candidate, this is who I'm backing,' and I think that made a lot of black women say, "We've been with the Clintons for several decades, and we think we should take a look at this guy, maybe we should see what he is about.'''

Support for Clinton among women has been growing, while Obama is gaining among African-Americans, the results in last week's Nevada caucuses show.

How will it go this time around?

Greene says she believes that "black women will stick with Hillary."

"I think they are going to take a very long look at her experience, her work to fight for civil rights, fighting for women's rights, fighting for human rights, and that's going to play well with them," she says.

Salon owner Jackson doesn't hide what having a woman president would mean to her. "If she could run for president, then I could run for president one day, right?" she asks.

If only both candidates were on the same ticket, then women here say that the decision would be a no-brainer.


"Maybe Hillary's a great vice president for Obama," Singleton suggests.

Either way, whether it's a woman or a black man, everyone in this salon says they agree it'd be a great day for America. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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