First Person Singular: Pollster Cornell Belcher

By Robin Rose Parker, Published: April 21 Washington Post Magazine

I never thought specifically of being a pollster. I did want to get involved in politics. I remember visiting Washington as a child on a field trip and thinking to myself, This is a city I want to one day live in. To be completely honest, I’d never seen so many good-looking black people all in one place. I said, “I want to be a part of that.”

Most young people [who] come to Washington want to change the world, ’til we grow cynical. I came here because I wanted to help empower younger people and bring a different, more diverse voice to the political process. I remember as a young man understanding that social science was a way to sort of change the world. Reading Gordon Parks’s “A Choice of Weapons” — the idea of, if you want to bring about change to the world, [conscientious] people have to make a choice of weapons. Of course, the camera and art was his weapon of choice, but politics was gonna be my weapon of choice for trying to bring about change.

I’ve always been fascinated with social and political behavior. Growing up in the South, we’d play baseball and football together, all of our different friends from so many different ethnic backgrounds, but the home life and the political life were so different. Particularly when you grow up in parts of the South, you play with friends who, at their house, there is a Confederate flag. But that’s part of the South, some of these symbols that people hold on to; they hold on to them even though you’re interacting with them in a different place, in a different era, in a different way.

I remember the South Carolina Democratic primary night. We knew we had to win South Carolina big. And we, in fact, did win South Carolina big. Later that evening, before then-Senator Obama was gonna come out and speak, I remember standing on the side of the stage. There was quietness about the auditorium. And there were some kids, young kids, both white and black, up in the stands and without any prompting from any official, these kids started chanting, “Race doesn’t matter.” It started slow, and it picked up. They were chanting: “Race doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t matter.” And I remember being so struck by the spontaneity of that. We were two blocks from the South Carolina Capitol, where the Confederate flag still flies, and these young kids were shouting, “Race doesn’t matter.” Of course, they know it matters, but they were screaming and shouting to what they want. They were trying to shout into existence the world that they want. I was so struck by the power and the goodness of regular everyday Americans. I almost teared up. That to me was a moment where it was like, I’m glad I do what I do and can contribute some part in this grand American experiment that we’re all in.