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by Maria Lloyd
In a posting on TheNation.com, Melissa Harris-Perry attempted to motivate President Obama’s reluctant African American supporters by telling them an Obama re-election is beyond what policies he does or does not pass for African Americans, his re-election embodies “…a symbol of triumphant black achievement.”
She also wrote that the mainstream media has reported ‘faulty’ polls showing that African Americans’ support of President Obama has waved. She referenced the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, stating that Mitt Romney had zero percent support from the black community and that lack of support indicates that Obama’s African American supporters are still supporting him. “But a sober assessment shows that Obama has enjoyed robust, unwavering and unprecedented approval ratings among African-Americans,” she wrote. “This was evidenced most starkly by the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that measured black support for Mitt Romney at zero percent.”
What Harris-Perry fails to illustrate is that a zero percent interest in Mitt Romney in the black community does not equate to a 100% support of President Obama. A number of African American voters have decided not vote or to vote for a third party candidate. She went on to explain what an Obama re-election would mean to the black community and how the Democratic party has supported the black community since the 1960′s.
The question is not whether the president enjoys the backing of black voters—he does. The question is not whether this support matters—it does. Black voters in states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida are crucial to his re-election. The question is: What difference does it make to black voters if Obama is re-elected?
The impact of an Obama presidency on black Americans is better answered by partisanship than race. Since the 1960s, African-Americans have fared better under Democratic administrations than under Republican ones. Most of the value of an Obama second term over a Romney presidency is captured by this partisan difference. But race is not inconsequential. For African-Americans, having a black president matters in terms not fully captured by policy outcomes.
When Obama became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, he was asked about the historic nature of his election. A young Obama replied, “Although…I think people can say my election symbolizes some progress…I think it’s real important to keep the focus on the broader world out there…. For a lot of kids, the doors that have been opened to me aren’t open to them.” The quote is more than twenty years old, but the sentiment is still relevant to his presidency today.
My question to Harris-Perry is: We understand why the President ‘enjoys’ the backing of black voters, but why should black voters enjoy backing him? Given the state of black America today with an unemployment rate that has consistently been twice that of the nation’s rate, why should black voters give unwavering support to the Obama Administration and the Democratic party? If African Americans have ‘fared better’ under Democratic candidates, why aren’t we seeing these results?
She continued to write about her own conversation with the President regarding the black community. His response offered little-to-no assurance that he’d be rallying to support issues specifically targeting the black community.
It was with full awareness of this complicated relationship that I sat down with President Obama in the Oval Office. I had been asked by Ebony magazine to conduct an interview with the president on the issues facing black communities and what he planned to do for those communities if re-elected.
Some aspects of the conversation were unsurprising. The president argued that race-neutral policies that help all Americans have a specific impact on black people. He discussed, for example, how the Affordable Care Act will particularly benefit African-Americans, who are the least likely to be insured. He emphasized education as the key to long-term racial and economic equality. When pushed, the president was willing to engage on more racially specific concerns, like the scourge of urban gun violence. But his preference was to think about the racially positive effects of race-neutral policies.
At one point Obama wistfully reflected on the age of President Lincoln, saying, “In some ways, I think it used to be easier. Abraham Lincoln used to have just an open office…folks would just line up outside—they’d walk in, they’d petition him for something.”
I reminded him that Lincoln did have to deal with a civil war. “Yes,” President Obama laughed, “that’s a good trade-off.”
It was a light moment, and I was pleased that I got the president to laugh. But it was also a moment of insight for me. In his romantic vision of Lincoln’s open-door White House, it seemed the president had forgotten the raging battle that divided the nation. It made me wonder if he could still see the brutal structural circumstances most black citizens face. Only a second term can answer this question.
One thing is clear: black voters will determine how much race, policy and history weigh in their calculation to turn out for President Obama. Only they—not the campaign, not the media—will dictate their interests in this moment. It is the irony of democracy that they have greater power to hold the door open for President Obama than he has to hold the door open for them.
Harris-Perry even highlighted the socio-economic factors that specifically plague the black community: “Black children suffer the highest rates of poverty and food insecurity. African-Americans continue to have strikingly lower literacy, high school graduation and college completion rates. African-American unemployment remains nearly twice that of whites, while black incarceration tracks at six times that of whites.” Yet, she fails to successfully convey why black voters should continue to support President Obama and the Democratic party. We embodied the triumphant achievement of a bi-racial American in President Obama’s first election. What’s the benefit of revisiting that triumph?