One of the most tenacious myths of the Obama presidency is that he has a problem with black voters. Before a single vote was cast in the 2008 primary, pundits focused on the fact that Hillary Clinton enjoyed the support of high-profile members of the black establishment and wondered whether Obama was “black enough” to attract African-Americans. But once these voters had an opportunity to cast their ballots, their support for Obama was indisputable.
This myth has continued to dog Obama’s presidency, as the mainstream media repeatedly report faulty polls showing a steep decline in his black support. But a sober assessment shows that Obama has enjoyed robust, unwavering and unprecedented approval ratings among African-Americans. This was evidenced most starkly by the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that measured black support for Mitt Romney at zero percent.
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.
No matter what policies he pursues, the president’s racialized embodiment stands as a symbol of triumphant black achievement. By embodying the American state in blackness, President Obama stitches together the double consciousness identified by W.E.B. Du Bois: “two souls…two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” For many black observers, there is a certain wonder in the simple reality that President Obama has not been rent in two by the sheer force of embodying both blackness and Americanness.
But there is a danger inherent in Obama’s ability to stand in this unusual gap. Simply by being elected, Obama trumpets a postracial individualism that threatens to undermine the very structures of opportunity that made his accomplishments possible. He recognizes this danger. It is why, even in 1990, he redirected attention to the “broader world out there.” The only way to resist false racial triumphalism is with a consistent and clear examination of the structural inequities that continue to shape opportunities for the majority of African-Americans.
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.
As the election campaign draws to a close, Obama’s defeat or victory seems equally likely. As with so much of his career, his success or failure will not be his alone; it will be a shared racial marker. But his re-election does not ensure, in any direct or easy way, that the doors of opportunity will be opened any wider for future generations of black Americans.
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.
In “What Race Has to Do With It,” Gary Younge says the current election has posed a challenge of self-control for Republicans raised on a diet of welfare queens and Willie Horton.