Why Black People Should (or Should Not) Vote for Obama in 2012

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We live in an interesting world. In this world, black public figures have to almost apologize for being critical thinkers as it pertains to the Obama Administration. Every critique must begin with the words, “I voted for Obama myself, but….” Supporting Obama is not enough; instead, you are measured by the depth of your love for him, and considered traitorous for even asking the wrong questions. Wait, this reminds me of going to church, so perhaps there is a connection.

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There are at least two types of black voters in 2012: Those who have jobs and those who don’t. The latter group seems to be far less excited about Obama’s performance than the former. That’s just a simple fact. No amount of black McCarthyism or intimidation of dissenting voices is going to change this hard, cold truth. Those who don’t agree and wish to make excuses for a lack of action on the part of the administration need only look at the data to realize that things didn’t have to be this way. There were some mistakes that we can’t just blame on Republican racism (the same way Pookie being racially-profiled in his neighborhood is no excuse for him not do his homework).

White unemployment improved during the Obama presidency, while black unemployment got worse – so, while the downturn affected everyone, the gap between blacks and whites actually increased (for example, fewer blacks own homes now than during the year 1990). But that’s what happens when you simply say that the “rising tide will lift all boats” when asked what your administration plans to do to fight racial inequality. Even Reagan and Bush had more to say on the issue and it’s hard to distinguish this policy from trickle down economics. One would expect that having a black president would improve the race gap, not worsen it. But when a man knows he can wear his political capital on his skin, he doesn’t have to do much to convince black voters to support him. Bill Clinton had to earn the loyalty of the black community through deliberate political action – had he been black, he could have gained our trust by simply showing up on BET commercials.

For those who are gainfully employed, the symbolic satisfaction of having a black president is a luxury item that keeps us warm at night. While the racism experienced on the job remains the same, and many of us have relatives in prison who will never see the light of day, the image of a black man leading the county makes us feel better, like taking a stiff drink after a stressful day at work. This phenomenon is no different from wealthy folks being able to spend thousands of dollars for expensive paintings, while the poor spend their money on food.

For those who need political leaders to fight for them, there is little incentive to support either the Democrats or the Republicans. Also, for those who care about joblessness or mass incarceration, it’s hard to give them concrete reasons to go out and vote, other than to say “But the president’s black,” or to state a long list of liberal agenda items that the president has fulfilled (like helping to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’). Healthcare reform is a clear exception for which the Obama Administration deserves credit. But any analysis of President Obama‘s speeches to the black community (as well as those from his surrogates) shows that the speeches are woefully lacking on substance or measurable/impactful policy, and heavy on the “lawud says that all of ya’ll need to be patient” rhetoric that many of us hear on Sundays.

Black folks are typical told to be patient when we’ve waited too long already, to have faith without much evidence of progress, and reminded of how “the road was rough” during the Civil Rights marches. Translation:  We can’t give you much proof that we’ve done hardly anything in exchange for your vote, but please give us another four years and we promise not to sleep on the job again. Like the man who slept with the woman and didn’t call for a month, Democrats are showing up on our doorsteps with flowers and candy, promising that their doggish days are behind them. What’s worse is that the womanizing man knows that the girl doesn’t have many dating alternatives to begin with.

Black people, in my experience, are neither liberal nor conservative. We are just black.  So, slipping black people into a liberal agenda that was built for someone else typically leads to an awkward fit. In fact, when it comes to most of the issues that get liberals up in arms, many black folks look the other way and simply say, “Good thing Obama is keeping the white folks happy with this stuff, because I can take it or leave it.” Don’t believe me?  Just go inside a black church and fight for gay marriage, reproductive rights or environmentalism to see how many people make eye contact with you.

When I think about how bad things are for people of color throughout the US, I can only encourage them to carefully analyze the data on any candidate they support, and to not just support anyone because it’s “the cool thing to do.” Some may even sit out of the election if no candidate has shown that they will fight for their causes. WEB Dubois made it clear 60 years ago that having the RIGHT to vote does not mean that you HAVE to vote, so if none of the candidates can speak directly to issues you care about, I would be careful about allowing anyone to use racial guilt as a method to convince you to conform.

This is not to say that those who support Obama (or anyone else for that matter) are doing so because they are stupid. But most of us know at least one person who can’t give more than one concrete reason that they are giving the Democrats their vote. Sharing a vote is like giving up your virginity: You don’t have to simply give it up to the best available option and it’s OK to wait until the right suitor comes along. What is also true (as Kanye and Jay-Z remind us in their songs celebrating elitist materialism) is that there is a huge difference between being poor and black vs. being safe and snug in the black middle and upper class. The Obama presidency, if anything, is teaching us that black people no longer have to be politically monolithic, and that is a good thing for Democracy.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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