The Election, Race and Religion in Gaston County

Oct 23, 2008

When I first moved to Charlotte about four years ago, I quickly learned that Gaston County is the butt of a lot of jokes in our region. It's common for people in Charlotte to look down their noses at their neighbor to the west. Right or wrong, it has a reputation for being a bit backward. In Gaston County, the number of registered democrats is about even with the number of republicans. It's the type of place where I wouldn't expect Barack Obama to do well. Although he easily won the North Carolina democratic primary, he lost this county by eight points. With this in mind, I wanted to know what locals think of him now. On an early Monday morning, the Hardee's in Belmont is buzzing with regulars. Most are seniors and retirees meeting up for breakfast, as they do every day. At 49 Herman Ross is one of the younger guys. He's a recently laid off trucker from Freightliner. Ross doesn't like his choices for president. He says John McCain is too old. And he believes Barack Obama is making too many promises and worries he could get assassinated if he doesn't fulfill them. "You know a lot of people says this is race and all that but it's not! He's the first man of race that's running and he's promising a lot of things. And if he doesn't come through with those things, he's going to make a lot of people mad," says Ross. "It's not just because he's black. It's just because he's promising a lot of things. And when you promise people a lot of things. There's always a bunch of radicals out there and they'll get very upset." Still, Ross says he's leaning toward voting for Obama. He's worried about the economy and says Obama seems to care more about the working class. Obama is a Christian but in the Hardee's restaurant others aren't convinced like 73-year old Mercy Arms. "I just know how I feel and I feel like that McCain is more like us," she says. I ask, "What do you mean? More like you?" "Well I think he would be I don't want to call it religion- but his beliefs would be more like mine like I say that's just my feelings." Arms believes Obama would not take the oath of office on a Bible. "Now I don't know what he's going to be sworn in on, but that's what it said on the Internet that he would not be using the bible and I don't like that either," she says. Rob Christensen, a long-time political reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer, says he often hears Obama's detractors refer to the candidate's inexperience. "Well, that may be true but there may be other things involved there too. Or all the rumors about well, is he a Muslim? That sort of thing. of course he's not a Muslim. That may be really a way for people to talk about their reluctance to vote for a black man," says Christensen. At Nichol's convenience store in Gastonia, a steady stream of customers fill up on gas. They stop for a hot dog or some fried chicken at one of the veneer-topped booths, and a chat with owner Bob Nichols. The 48-year old is one of three brothers who run a local chain of stores in Gaston and Lincoln counties. He says he's glad to uphold his southern heritage as a registered Democrat. But Nichols can't quite commit to Obama. "It's going to be a huge change for a lot of people to get used to the idea of there being a black man in the white house. I know that sounds racist," he says. Then he takes an idealistic turn and says, "But if you're honest and truthful and you genuinely care about people and everyday of your life you're going to do the right thing, I don't care if you wake in the morning and you're purple and go to bed green at night. It has nothing to do with it. but there is the perception a lot of people don't want to see that." As the conversation grows, so does Nichols' enthusiasm for Obama. He points out that Obama's mother is white. He refers to an ad he saw the night before. Nichols says, "I got to see what his mother looks like, what his grandparents look like, so for all people who think he's some kind of terrorist who came here after 9-11 and somehow has worked his way into the system, that's far from true. He's probably as American as anybody." About a mile down the road from Nichols is Brittian's. It's a gas station and convenience store that rents videos. It's not as busy as Nichols. At the checkout counter, customers can peruse hunting knives and other accessories under a glass case. Two customers sit at a round table scratching off lottery tickets. One is white and one is black and neither is interested in talking about the election. The owner, Kevin Brittian agrees to talk. He's a registered Democrat and proclaims he's voting for McCain. Brittian says he doesn't trust Obama. "I don't believe any Christian person in this world could vote for that man. If you're a Christian and you've got Christian values, I don't believe you could vote for Osama Bin Laden or whatever his name- Barrack Obama. What's his name, is that his name? No way," Brittian says. "Do you think he's a Muslim," I ask. "I think so, probably," Brittian says. "He can say what he wants but I don't believe him (when Obama says he's a Christian). I can look him in the eyes and I don't believe him. I just don't believe him." The News and Observer's Christensen says the question of race remains elusive. "Race is one of the most powerful undercurrents in American life and American politics. And certainly it's not as strong as it once was, but the echoes are still there," says Christensen. Regina White agrees but doesn't stress over it. She's African-American and was born and raised in Bessemer City. "I mean, it's all around, really. But people are going to vote for who they vote for. You're going to catch a bunch of negative comments among these people about who they want and who they're for," she says. White is voting for Obama, but says race isn't a chief factor. The economy is her main concern. After all, she works at one of the few mills left in Gaston County.