Can Obama hold on to African American voters in 2012?

October 17, 2011

For several months, radio host Tom Joyner has pleaded with his 8 million listeners to get in line behind the first black president.

“Stick together, black people,” says Joyner, whose R&B morning show reaches one in four African American adults.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, an ally of President Obama who has a daily radio show and hosts a nightly cable television program, recently told the president’s black critics, “I’m not telling you to shut up. I’m telling you: Don’t make some of us have to speak up.”

Even as Obama and his campaign play down the suggestion that support among African Americans is flagging, a cadre of powerful allies is snapping back at critics in the black community and making explicit appeals for racial loyalty.

“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.”

That message is pointed at racial unity much more than it was in 2008, when just the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president brought out record numbers of African American voters. This time, high-profile Obama supporters are tailoring their appeal in hopes of reigniting enthusiasm among blacks, a critical part of the president’s base that has been disproportionately hurt by the lagging economy and high unemployment rates.

Recent Washington Post-ABC News polls have shown a drop in the number of blacks who have ”strongly favorable” views of Obama and those who think his policies are improving the economy. This has coincided with vocal criticism of the president among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other African American leaders.

But the focus on sticking together has prompted criticism from some who call it an overly simplistic view that shuts off dialogue about Obama’s achievements and his failures.

“It truncates vibrant conversation in the black community,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University. “What I hear them saying is, ‘Black folk need to get in lock step because we don’t want Republicans to take the White House.’ There is a kind of disciplining of the black polity that doesn’t lend itself to a vibrant and detailed consideration about political issues.”

The message is that criticism of Obama should be treated like a family argument — not to be made public — said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

“What they seem to be trying to do now is shift the tone of the discussion in the black community,” she said. “You have these radio hosts talking about unity and that now is not the time for disagreement with the president. It could be effective.”

The calls for racial solidarity have not come from the White House, and Obama has been careful to speak in broad terms, even when talking about how his policies have helped African Americans. At the same time, his campaign has welcomed the support of black media figures. Those “validators” make clear that they back the president’s policies, and a White House aide noted that their support is deeper than the color of Obama’s skin. “You don’t see them supporting Herman Cain or Alan Keyes,” the aide said.

This past weekend, Obama called on the legacy of the civil rights movement at the dedication in Washington of the monument honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an event that followed a march chaired by Sharpton and Joyner in support of Obama’s jobs act.

The White House has turned to black radio often in recent weeks, building on the relationships Obama established during his 2008 primary campaign. In a video greeting to thousands at an Atlanta event this month sponsored by a gospel radio host, the president spoke about blacks supporting one another.

“It is in times like these that we need our faith more than ever,” Obama said. “Because we’ve been through hard times before. . . . We have moved forward one step at a time with the knowledge that I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.”

Much of this conversation has played out on urban radio, and in a city like Norfolk, where half a dozen radio stations focus on black audiences, the message has moved on to the streets.

Jack Jackson, who works for the city’s water treatment plant, said he is tired of the appeals to black identity politics.

“Leave the race game alone,” said Jackson, 53, who said he supports Obama. “Let’s not keep holding on to that. It’s been done. . . . We should put our faith in God, not Obama.”

But Corry McGriff, 42, said the call to stick together resonates with him, and McGriff has begun telling his friends that they have a responsibility to support the president, too. “We need to keep him in there. By him becoming president, he is showing African Americans that it can be done,” said McGriff, who works for a federal defense contractor. “He helped the race. ”

Kychelle Green, 18, a nursing student at Norfolk State University, agreed. “You know it’s not really his fault that things aren’t changing,” she said. “He’s really trying but he can’t change every rule on his own. Now people are trying to criticize him because he is African American.”

Green said she listens every morning to Steve Harvey, who is among the radio hosts who are promoting the message that Obama deserves support.

Warren Ballentine, a black talk radio host based in North Carolina who has interviewed Obama about a dozen times, speaks about the president’s accessibility. “It’s not like he is not hearing black America,” he said.

Ballentine specifically reminds his listeners of the racial undertones he saw in the 2008 campaign.

“It’s almost like we’ve forgotten what this man had to go through to get into the office. We need to remember the hatred and vitriol that came out.”

Sharpton said he learned an important lesson about supporting black politicians in the early 1990s, when David Dinkins, who was New York’s first black mayor, was running for reelection. Sharpton criticized Dinkins’s “deliberative” style and thought his policies were not progressive enough. Dinkins was hurt by the diminished enthusiasm and turnout among black voters.

“We beat up on him. He went down and we ended up with eight years of Rudy Giuliani,” said Sharpton, who has been among Obama’s most aggressive supporters. “I said I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Obama’s support slips among black voters

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Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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