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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

He's no Martin Luther King - but we like him


A day after Sen. Barack Obama accepted the nomination as the Democratic candidate for President with a speech that outlined his goals and excoriated Republicans for a host of the country's ills, African American residents of Highbridge, Bronx, among New York City's - and the nation's - most economically depressed neighborhoods, were hopeful he'd deliver on his promises.

After watching the speech, "I became positive," said Taylor Taylor, 84, a retired truck driver. "I was slightly vague before, because I'm slow to form an opinion. But now, I'm positive." Taylor's sentiments were echoed by more than a half-dozen residents of the economically blighted area. Many said that post-speech, their inclination towards Obama as their choice was now a sure thing.

For some it was personal. Angela Phoenix, 46, a worker at a Highbridge shelter for homeless women, cited Obama's history. "I have a belief in him because of his family background," she said. Victoria Beckford, 80, cited similar reasons. "He was raised poor. He wasn't raised with a silver spoon," she said. "Bush, all his life he dealt with money." Like many residents interviewed, she believes Obama will follow through on his campaign promises to aid the impoverished because he can relate from personal experience.

Highbridge residents interviewed were also won over by the content of Obama's speech. Over the past 18 months of his campaign Obama ran as "the candidate of hope". Republicans criticized him as weak on the key issues of the campaign, citing this vague motto. In his three-quarters of an hour-long speech, Obama rose to his detractors' challenge, enumerating the specific policies he would enact and problems he would address as commander in chief. His specificity and strong tone towards what he judges to be Republican failings won points with Highbridge residents like Thomas Brown, 54, a superintendent. "I liked how he handled himself when they were talking about how 'weak' he is," said Brown, "And the way how he responded to it...he never did get around to saying anything about it until last night."

Beckford was also impressed by the detail Obama went into, particularly regarding social and economic issues with which Highbridge residents grapple. "I thought he did a good job and made a good speech," said Beckford, "Especially on the schools, the people who are not working who lost their jobs. And how they're giving tax breaks to the big business people who take the jobs overseas and leave the people over here who built this country without jobs and with no medical [insurance] for their children."

Obama's strong language against his opponent, such phrases as "John McCain doesn’t get it" regarding social security for example, drew criticism from McCain's camp who issued a statement immediately following that said it was "a misleading speech." Brown and others felt it was justified: "McCain started the mudslinging," he said, "Trying to say that [Obama] was too weak a man to run this country, but it turns out it's not that way."

"I think he spoke his mind," said Beckford, "And he told the truth."

Not everyone was sold. Chitara Elzey, 16, a student who will be too young to vote in November, called it "politics as usual." "It's his job to say, 'I'm going to do this, and I'm going to do that because Bush didn't'," she said, "I think it's all just posturing."

Towards the end of his speech, which fell on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama cited King's historic address. It was one of the only references he made to race, an allusion that drew sharp responses from African American residents of Highbridge. "Martin Luther King and Obama are two different categories," said Jamal Alford, 27, a mechanic. "Martin Luther King portrayed himself to liberate blacks, Obama is just trying to make blacks further ourselves as a black race." Beckford too was quick to point out the distinction, "[MLK] went into prison; he was whipped; he was thrown in jail; he was bitten by dogs. Obama...never went through none of the hell that Martin Luther King went through, and I would never compare them."

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