The call by some members of the black media for African Americans to support President Obama in racial solidarity is a terrible idea. Just as terrible as women supporting women only because of their sex, or any other group viewing the world solely through the narrow prism of their own experience.
If pursued and played by Obama, it would be the worst thing not only for his reelection campaign but also for the country. The man who was elected on a promise of unity — neither black nor white nor red nor blue — can’t now play the race card. Any of his supporters who play that hand will be doing a disservice to themselves and to the nation.
How did this come about?
As Obama’s approval has been slipping, some leaders in the African American media have begun calling on blacks to ignore their concerns and just vote black. Leading the pack is radio host Tom Joyner, who reaches an astonishing one in four black adults. Maybe we could just have Joyner and Rush Limbaugh wrestle each other’s ideas to the mat and skip these tedious debates, primaries and conventions.
Joyner is blunt with his 8 million listeners: “Stick together, black people.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has his own nightly television show on MSNBC as well as a radio show, told black critics of the president: “I’m not telling you to shut up. I’m telling you: Don’t make some of us have to speak up.”
Sharpton says he learned his lesson about criticizing black politicians when, in the 1990s, he pounced on David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor, when he was running for reelection. Low turnout from blacks helped elect Rudy Giuliani.
“We beat up on him. He went down and we ended up with eight years of Rudy Giuliani,” says Sharpton. “I said I’ll never make that mistake again.”
Whether Sharpton can accept credit for influencing the election’s outcome seems to have been resolved in his own mind. But the notion that blacks can’t criticize each other on the merits undermines the argument that race shouldn’t matter in evaluating performance.
Yet this is precisely what Joyner is insisting.
“Let’s not even deal with the facts right now. Let’s deal with just our blackness and pride — and loyalty,” Joyner wrote on his BlackAmericaWeb.com blog. “We have the chance to re-elect the first African-American president, and that’s what we ought to be doing. And I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that as black people, we should do it because he’s a black man.”
Needless to say, such words from a white man would earn him only ruin. It would be considered racist and, of course, it is. It is also unhelpful to Obama, who leads a nation of many races and ethnicities. To suggest that he owes his allegiance to only one segment of the population and can expect reciprocity runs contrary to everything we strive for.
Obama hasn’t played the race card overtly, though recently he did call on a mostly African American audience at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Awards dinner to kick off their bedroom slippers and put on their marching shoes. “Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on,” he said. “We’ve got work to do.”
Otherwise, Obama has tried to avoid identifying himself as primarily African American. His 2008 speech on race, in which he reminded Americans of the uniqueness of both his story and the moral of that story, could use a rehearing:
“I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
Those who call on blacks to vote for the black man might do their fellow citizens and their country more good if they read this speech instead.
That there are still white racists who would vote against Obama because of his skin color rather than his policies is an ugly fact of life. But most people in this country are not racist. Polls showed a healthy majority of whites supporting Obama in the early months of his administration.
This country has transcended much that was hideous and painful in the course of our evolution. It would be a shame to turn back now.