WESTPORT, Conn. -- TEAM Westport, a local council focused on multiculturalism and diversity in everyday life, promised its first foray into politics wouldn't be a rally, a lecture or a pro-Obama event. The group hosted a race and politics forum Monday night with the attention-grabbing headline "Are we ready for an African American President?" I wondered who would show up and how TEAM Westport was going to treat the issue? Would it be heated conversation or pure fluff?
Westport is located about 45 miles from New York City on the Long Island Sound. As suburban towns go Westport has long been considered an artist's colony, a summer escape and home to celebrities like Paul Newman, Michael Bolton and CEOs. Even the well-known towel lady, Martha Stewart, got her start here before moving away to Bedford. Most are just well-off local folk who would be surprised to learn there are people on food stamps and Medicaid among them. With strong agricultural roots long since gone and few existing farms, there is only one last remaining cow on a 12 acre property that is currently being listed for $16 million, firm.
Meeting in a Unitarian Church Monday evening, the goal of the group was to start a dialog without being obtrusive or preachy. The objective was to create an open environment -- a comfortable relaxed atmosphere -- where we could each share our thoughts.
The organizers had hoped for 20 people and were thrilled with the roughly 50 attendees, including a small representation of African Americans, Muslims and Jews.
While etiquette usually dictates one never talks about money, religion or politics with company, this group ventured forth unabashedly. "Are we ready for an African American President?" Who would ask such a question? No, really, when was the last time you asked yourself, honestly, if this country is ready for an African American President? There are over 350,000 listings on Google using those same 8 words, so someone must be talking! Credible sites included the likes of CNN, New York Times, even, gasp! The Huffington Post.
The facilitator, Professor Judith Hamer (NYU), led the group, explaining that the evening's activities would utilize an unstructured open space technology format. After the introductions were finished and the issues were chosen, the next 45 minutes were spent in small groups, each contemplating a selected topic. Topics included: "Hidden Racism/Prejudice"; "What They Say Versus What They Do In The Voting Booth"; "The Need For Multi-Cultural / International Perspective"; "Is Obama Less Black Or Not Identified As African American?"; "Suspicions That Obama Is A Closet Muslim"; "The Belief That Obama Is Anti-Israeli"; and "Will An African American President Provide Inspiration and a Feeling of Inclusion to Millions of Americans Currently Feeling Disenfranchised?"
What I heard as I traveled between small groups was frank discussion but also: "He's Half-White, Half-Black;" or "He's a Muslim;" or "Obama Is Anti-Semitic" from some of the older participants. In the Anti-Semite/Closet Muslim group one woman stated, "I've received e-mails from my friends in Florida stating that Obama is anti-Israeli." When questioned further she was adamant that this is true, her friend who "survived the Holocaust" told her so in an e-mail. When questioned by others in her group, she responded that she questioned her friend in an e-mail about the charge but her friend did not reply.
There were a few young people there and, with the two I talked with, their take was different than the older crowd. They talked about growing up with the internet, YouTube, The Daily Show, reality TV, web blogs; the kind of media that provide news and information 24/7.
Jocelyn, 19, spoke about being prepared to excel in college but not having much exposure to other cultures and ethnicities before leaving home. Jordon, 25, saw generation and education as a factor. He felt that younger voters growing up with the internet are more sophisticated and well versed on international and national issues. He said more important than race or gender was where a candidate stood on the economy and the environment, what their leadership qualities would be. Referring to the TV show 24, the most popular character was a black president, he said, reasoning that the younger generation would be comfortable with an African American resident of the White House.
The largest small group -- they started with 12 and ended with 18 -- focused on hidden racial prejudice. They wound up combining with the group discussing "What They Say Versus What They Will Do." This enlarged group felt the polls are indicative of racism, that some may say they are voting for Obama but will turn around and vote for McCain. And, yes, there is racism out there and it may affect the election.
Another of their conclusions was that those who are disenfranchised are not always minorities but thousands who are registered and not able to vote for many reasons including changes in polling places, new identification requirements, new redistricting, etc.
Some didn't see Obama's world travel making much of a difference in their voting preference and wanted to know who he would surround himself with but then quickly concluded that this was a double standard because it has not been asked of McCain.
In the end there was no overall answer to the question, "Are we ready for an African American President?" There was a lot of discussion around each issue and the responses were, "Yes, we are" with a few saying, "No, we are not." The majority wanted to continue the conversation into the fall so it is still a work in progress.
If this meeting were taken as a national indicator, Obama and his campaign have a hard road leading up to the November 4th election and it may not get easier with time. Even after two hours there were the few whom continued to believe Obama is a closeted anti-Semite Muslim.
All in all, the evening's rhetoric turned out to be neither heated nor fluff but rather a conversation. It was a conversation more like a question looking for some answers.