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In Ohio, politics is divided along racial lines

Art McCoy, an East Cleveland barber and community activist, believes President Obama’s health-care insurance program prompted support among black voters: ‘They saw Obama as looking out for them.’

Ohio, a state crucial to Barack Obama's victory this week, is a reflection of the United States as a whole: split down the middle.

By a narrow margin, Ohioans seem to like their president and senators Democratic and their congressmen and state officials Republican.

And, by a much wider margin, the state's black and white communities are divided in their visions of the role of government and their confidence in the future.

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"It was the black vote, especially the young black men, that put Obama over the top," said Art McCoy, a 60-year-old barber, restaurant owner and long-time community activist in East Cleveland.

Indeed, the state's black vote, found mostly in the northern industrial urban centres, rose (unofficially) to about 15 per cent of the electorate from 11 per cent in 2008, even as the overall number of voters fell.

Mr. McCoy's community watchdog organization, known as Black on Black Crime Inc., working with other groups and with local church pastors, got out that vote, most notably during the last three days of early balloting.

And while many have attributed black support for President Obama to his 2009 bailout of the flagging auto industry, Mr. McCoy says it was something more universal that was the biggest determinant: Mr. Obama's health-care insurance program. Some 36 per cent of blacks had no insurance until this program came along, compared to the 12 per cent of whites who were unprotected.

"They saw Obama as looking out for them," Mr. McCoy said.

The notion of programs that disproportionately benefit certain groups close to the President was what fuelled a lot of the white anger felt across this state.

"No wonder Obama won," said Adele Ondrejech, 62, who works with her husband renovating homes. "You don't vote out Santa Claus, " she said.

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People in many parts of the state, especially the south and east, turned against Mr. Obama because of such government policies – or because other policies worked against them. Mostly white coal miners resented the blacks of Cleveland and Toledo who benefited from auto programs and health care while their jobs were being sacrificed in the name of clean energy.

More broadly, many of those angry white voters dislike the idea of government support. "Obama's a communist," said a 70-something man in Genoa township outside Columbus. He stood proudly beside his hand-painted lawn sign that read "I Like Ike," a revolver tucked into his pants at the back.

As silly as it may sound, the idea that Mr. Obama is a communist was a refrain heard frequently amidst a large number of older, white, church-going folks, particularly in Ohio suburbs and countryside.

Going forward, the state's baby-boom generation, like that of the country as a whole, is aging, with a growing number of people likely to favour less of a welfare state (as long as their pensions are secure). At the same time, Ohio's racial makeup is blurring, with blacks and a small Hispanic sector growing in size while the non-Hispanic white population is slowly declining. (A quarter of the state's schoolchildren now are non-white: black, Hispanic, Asian and native American.)

Ironically, Ohio's African-Americans, with a higher unemployment rate than whites, have the more favourable view of the future. According to exit polls conducted Tuesday, 86 per cent said they thought the country was moving in the right direction; only a minority of whites said the same thing.

"We're heading backward," said Mrs. Ondrejech, who lives in the predominantly white Cleveland suburb of North Olmstead. She calls Mr. Obama "the worst president ever."

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While Ohio's minority communities are growing, so too are the fundamentalist brands of Christianity that preach the literal word of the Bible and condemn godless government. An increasing number of these families now are home-schooling their children so they will not be affected by the more liberal notions they say are taught in public schools.

"We need to bring God back into our lives," said Mrs. Ondrejech, a Catholic, whose own church seems to be squaring for a battle against government policies that favour contraception, abortion and gay marriage.

"Obama could be Hitler or Mussolini," she said. "He wants to control everyone by his use of the state, including the education system."

It's hard not to conclude that Ohio, and perhaps other parts of the country, are being newly riven by racial politics.

Does that worry Mr. McCoy, the black community activist? "No," he said, "and I'll tell you why: because the majority of young people, both black and white, voted for Obama. Those young people will make the difference."

First-time voter Alexander Render, 18, concurs. The black first-year engineering student at Cleveland State University said: "We'll work together to make this country better."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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