Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Black Vote

At the House of Masters barbershop in Baltimore, they're talking politics -- presidential politics. Bring up who they are going to vote for in the Democratic primary, and you'll start a spirited debate.

"So you're voting for him just because he's black."


"But, but, but you are."

"The reason I'm voting for him is because I believe he has good morals."

Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton

For these black voters, the choice already boils down to just two -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

"I would vote for Hillary Clinton."

"Barack Obama. I mean the brother is worth being in office."

"I would go with Hillary, with experience of her husband being in there."

The Bill Factor

One of Hillary Clinton's biggest advantages is her husband, former President Bill Clinton. He remains enormously popular among African-Americans.

Former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke was a supporter of the former president and believes there is still a strong connection.

"I think there is a lot of goodwill for her in the black community because of Bill Clinton," Schmoke said. "And if he weren't involved in the campaign, I am less confident that she would have that strong support."

And part of it is that many -- maybe most -- black voters are not flocking to Obama just because he's black.

Looking Beyond Race

It's much more complex than that says the activist Rev. Al Sharpton.

"You've got to remember, we've had two black secretaries of state," Sharpton said. "We've had black mayors, some of which have been disappointing. We've had blacks in high positions. ... The novelty of just saying, 'I'm black,' going for a big position is not what it was."

Sharpton flexed his own political muscle recently by sponsoring a candidates forum -- facetiously dubbed the "Sharpton Primary." Clinton and Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina all attended.

Loyalty to Gender or Race

And what about African-American women? Will they be torn between loyalty to gender -- or loyalty to race?

Angela Burt-Murray, editor in chief of Essence magazine, one of the most-read black women's magazines, believes black women have to think about the same issues all Americans think about -- the war, the economy and health care. Issues, she says, have nothing to do with the color or gender of the commander in chief.

"It's going to come down to the issues," she said. "It's such an important race this year. It's not something that you can just: 'I'm going to vote for the black guy,' or 'I'm going to vote for the woman,' and trust they are going to advance my agenda just because they look like me."

Schmoke, now a dean at Howard University Law School, also believes there's also something intangible at work -- that some African-Americans just don't believe white America would elect a black man president.

"It says, 'Why jump in here and get on this bandwagon when we think that down the road that this country is not going to be ready for this? Shouldn't we look at some other alternatives?'" Schmoke said.

Back at the House of Masters, there are conflicted feelings about America's readiness.

"It never really entered my mind, having a black president. I never thought it would happen, but it would be an amazing thing to see."

"Wouldn't it be nice, and successful probably, if Hillary Clinton ran for president and Barack Obama vice president. If that's not a change!"

"It's time for change, but I don't think that America is ready for the black president.

It's a marathon, not a sprint to November 2008. They'll have to wait and see if history is made.