Critics such as professor Cornel West and celebrity journalist Tavis Smiley, who together recently mounted their own anti-poverty campaign and released "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto," have pointed out that there has been little, if any, measurable movement on a black political agenda during this administration. The alarmingly high incarceration rates of African Americans, educational achievement gap where blacks lag behind and the jobs crisis all remain as persistent as before Obama was elected.
With the backdrop of the 8.28 percent national unemployment rate and a decline in May in the number of jobs added, African Americans remain the hardest hit by the nation’s troubled economy. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and the black unemployment rate is significantly higher than the national percentage — reaching record highs in many metropolitan cities. Yet the president, aside from his well-received statement that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon [Martin],” continues to deemphasize race.
I get it -- he’s not the black president. He can’t promote a black agenda. And he has to steer clear of any rhetoric or policy that may give the right wing an opening to incite racialized, political fear. But that doesn’t mean that he is justified in being silent about black suffering when national disparities demand that he speak up.
There was a lot at play in 2008 that worked in Obama’s favor that won’t be a factor in the 2012 presidential election. There’s the obvious fact that America has its first black president. Second, the idealism of electing a grass-roots community-organizer-turned-politician has worn off and we have the reality of his track record. And, finally, Obama is the incumbent, versus the new kid on the block. As an incumbent, Obama comes with baggage that will require that he not only foster excitement for the future but also reminds us, as black voters, of our best days together.
This need to employ nostalgia becomes particularly important when, as radio personality Michael Baisden — who has been a part of ongoing efforts to educate, register and mobilize voters --- told me, there is “rigorous opposition by Republicans to any job-creating legislation proposed by President Obama.” Baisden hopes that “down the line African American voters are not influenced by the consistent negative messages sent out by Republican operatives. Right now, the people are with him. I hope they continue to remember the hard road President Obama has traveled and don’t come down with a sudden case of amnesia.”
To combat voter amnesia, Obama should balance being universal in his approach, as he historically has been, but yet also deeply personal. He would benefit from appealing to the same sensibilities that he did four years ago and not assume that familiarity will carry the bulk of the weight. Black voters want to believe in the man they voted for in 2008, and not be limited to the man as he stands in 2012.
If personal engagement is critical to his appeal and success, then the president will have to rely less on his popular wife, Michelle Obama, and more on how his own policies will affect the day-to-day lives of marginalized groups. If the matter at hand is women’s reproductive rights, for example, then African American and Latino women want to know what that uniquely means for them when they may not have the same access to health care that some white women have.
It’s important to keep in mind that “black women carry the black vote,” says Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of Black Women’s Roundtable. Dismissing black voter apathy as a serious threat, Campbell stresses that black women have organized to ensure their voices are heard and that their “vote is not taken for granted by anybody.”
Obama’s 2008 campaign was branded as a grass-roots movement via rhetoric, organizational structure and tactics. His 2012 bid for reelection can only build off the momentum of that era if he is committed to the same strategies. Obama should meet black voters where they are – in their community centers, schools and places of worship. Many agree that he hasn’t done it enough in the last 3 1/2 years. And even if he gets accused of playing politics, I don’t think it’s too late for him to – sincerely – reach out now.
Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, echoes this, stating that “Obama must revisit the grass-roots strategy that propelled him in 2008.” To her, this means “less star-studded fundraisers and more town hall meetings with the people in greatest need of progressive policies. Taking his message directly to black voters who are disproportionately affected by many of the challenges now facing our country. Chief among those must be an emphasis on strengthening education, creating jobs that are available and accessible to those living in urban centers, bolstering universal health care and protecting civil rights.”
Baisden, Campbell and Brown-Dean all seemed less concerned about voter apathy than voter suppression. Their emphasis was less on whether black voters would come out to the polls and more on whether their votes would actually count, as mounting barriers threaten to repeat the black voter disenfranchisement that has plagued America’s past politics.
With the very serious threat of voter apathy and voter suppression, Obama needs to take black voters more seriously than he has in times past. The infatuation with a young man holding on to “dreams from [his] father” has worn off for many of us and we’re looking to be actively courted – just like everyone else. Obama must remember that anything worth having is worth fighting for.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.