I am a daughter of the American South. My family story is like many African American families who chose to stay in the South rather than head to the North or the West in the Great Migration. Settling near the very plantations where they were slaves, we were a family of preachers, teachers, pullman porters, factory workers, caddies, domestics, and farmers. The goal for my great grandparents was an American goal: for their children to get an education; to own a home and raise a family; and to honor their God with the works of their hands and hearts. The complexity of our race relations in the South cannot be reduced to the two dimensional portrayals that usually are the fodder of uninformed intellectuals who too eagerly view the characters in our world as either all white sheeted Klansman running across the night with a lighter and gasoline or scared poverty stricken negro sharecroppers who sang spirituals from sun up to sunset. In our three dimensional reality African Americans in the South shared an indescribable cultural bond with Whites that was grounded (quietly and not so quietly) in a shared religious, agriculturally ethos tied in together in familial blood (whether acknowledged publicly or not).
Yet, despite this shared reality, when faced with the moral demands of integration, the price for the South was high. In addition to the psychic, the physical battles that were fought in the streets of Birmingham, the buses of Montgomery, at the Lyceum in Oxford, and lunch counters throughout the South, shattered the notion that only one civil war was fought on the South. Children of my generation, the first generation of ‘ The New South’, were a transition generation. At home we were cultivated to know that we could be anything we wanted, live anywhere we wanted and go to school anywhere we wanted–yet, at school, our newly integrated schools, many of us faced what our parents faced on their jobs: a begrudging welcome tinged with the whispered addition of “nigger.” We were the next generation of the ‘Talented Tenth’ –reminded often that our educational and professional success was not to only be an economic and political boon for immediate family but for the “Black Community.” Voting was considered a part of caring for our community. As the people at the lowest rung of the American sociological and economic ladder, embracing the candidate that would consider our community’s particular history and reality, would mean that this was a candidate who cared for the least of these and sought to give them voice where they were silenced.
Contrary to popular electoral belief, African Americans have not been a monolithic Democratic voting block. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and G.W.Bush have received double digit voter support throughout their electoral careers. In 1968, Nixon won with 36% of the African American vote and in 1980 and 2000 Mr. Reagan and Bush won with 18%. What was interesting was that within each of these president’s electoral agenda was significant support for programs and policies that benefited the African American community. Please don’t get me wrong–each of them engaged in policies that reeked havoc within our community (Lord, Reagan alone was a Tsunami of setback). However, none of them ever, ever wrote off the Black Community. They played the political game of quid pro quo. They came to our churches, met with our leaders, and when they failed to meet our needs we called them out or in some cases voted them out. Even though African Americans saw their greatest gains under Bill Clinton including an increase in home ownership,educational attainment, small business growth and income, and the lowest poverty rate in our history, African American leaders regularly took Mr. Clinton to task when they perceived that he was taking our votes for granted. Despite being the first President to engage African Nations in more than a symbolic way; to use American innovation as a diplomatic and economic tool to lift people of color around the world out of despotism and dictatorships, to have standing and frequent meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus Charlie Rangel, Maxine Waters, and the African American scholar class never ever let him forget he had a charge to keep.
African Americans have never had a problem calling a politician out–that is until President Obama. Since 2008, African Americans have thrown a history of being critical electoral consumers (at least on a Presidential level) away in a misguided show of racial solidarity . Before the hate mail begins– I know he inherited a mess but let’s be real: he SIGNED UP for the job–it was not a surprise that the whole thing was going jankey. So whatever he chose to do in the first two years of his term would indicate his true priorities for our country and its people and for 24 months he had a legislative bat to swing without impediment. In those 24 months he proposed a health care bill based on the work of his GOP Rival (btw, if you like Obamacare then at least Mitt credit) and a bailout for the auto industry. When Elizabeth Warren sought to push through to create most comprehensive Consumer Protection Agency in modern history rather than fight for her, President Obama ran a bus right on over her backside. Yet, in all of this, not a word about the blight of black folks except on behalf of Skip Gates. A lot of dialogue about Pakastanis, Iraqis, Chinese, Iranians, Latinos, Women, the Middle class and autoworkers but no shout out for the “folks”. Yes, I know that Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell plot his downfall with every vote (but so does every politicians opposition). Clinton had Gingrich; Reagan had O’Neill; and Bush had Pelosi; and they still managed to get crap done.
Look, it is perfectly clear to me how the other ‘legs’ of the progressive table can and shouldsupport President Obama’s re-election. As a matter of fact, I think the record is quite clear why they should support him with their time and talent (and last minute dollars). Environmentalists got the pipline killed; LGBT got DOMA and DADT; Hispanics got the DREAM Act ; The Unions got GM and Chrysler; and even Catholics got to say no to the pill. So their investment in an Obama Administration has garnered great returns. Moreover, I believe that the states of Ohio, Michigan, and to a lesser extent Virginia, owe Mr. Obama their vote. He hooked them up EVERY chance he got. Frankly, I will be more than ticked off if they don’t go for him, because he has truly worked on their behalf.
However, I just can’t understand an almost 99% African American voter preference for the President. With evidence that bespeaks of utter neglect, it is implausible to explain such support on a purely rational level. How else can we explain our support for an administration where African American men over 20 years old have an unemployment rate of 13%, while African American women are at a ‘low’ of 9%? How can we fondly and enthusiastically embrace a President’s record where 27% of all house holds in poverty are African American and our median income is less than $32,000 a year (the lowest of the 4 groups tallied including Hispanics)? What else can explain our support for a President ,who unlike other presidents before him, for the first time in 48 years,failed to mention poverty in a State of the Union Address (2011) or the first Democratic president to fail to address race relations in any significant way in all four years (and no I do not count the Beer summit or the ‘if I had a son he would look like Treyvon’)? Congressional Black Caucus Chair, Emmanuel Cleaver had to admit that such electoral adulation for an incumbent with a record like this should be suspect, pointing out that “With 14% unemployment, if we had a white president, we would be marching around the White House and if Hillary Clinton were president, I would tell her she would have to go.” Cleaver unabashedly admitted that no one from the CBC would ever call President Obama out no matter how bad it got, “The President knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn’t to someone who was white.”
And there is the rub. Whereas we as African Americans (and dare I say progressives) would hold any other president accountable for the absolutely sorry state of African Americans in this country, President Obama has been given a pass, because, and I will say it : because he is black. White progressives don’t want to be labeled racists (they’d rather hurl that one at Republicans) so they don’t say anything and Blacks can’t stand to do it because ‘we just need to all stick together.Those of us who dare to give any indication that we are less than enthusiastic about President Obama are subject to losing our Black Card. Maxine Waters, speaking in Detroit, spoke of the dilemma thusly , “If we go after the President too hard, you are going to go after us.” Pleading with the crowd, Waters begged the Black Townhall meeting to “unleash the CBC” on Mr. Obama. She was shouted down with jeers. Mr. Obama, not unaware of this pass, points out that when African Americans think about the White House for the next four years–they want to see Michelle in it. They shouldn’t think of his his record but because they dig the thought of a sistah in the White House. Really? Hell, if my sorority sister can get the unemployment rate in our community down to the national average, I want her in there also, but as it is she is too busy telling me I am fat and to eat my veggies.
At the risk of racial exile, I am a part of a small but growing group of African American scholars like Fred Harris at Columbia, who is dare point out that there is a problem of pathology that is creating a dangerous electoral condition. Fred’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Price of a Black President”, is a wonderfully written indictment of an unspoken yet prevalent pathology that says that says to be truly black is to be uncritical of our first Black President. Lamenting the silence of the black Academy and the black political and religious establishment, Eddie Glaudet, noted theologian said it best “ Too many Black intellectuals have given up the hard work of thinking carefully IN PUBLIC about the crisis facing Black America…we have either become cheerleaders for President Obama or self-serving pundits.” We have abdicated our cultural mandate (hey I am even willing to question that mandate but it is what it is) to use our positions to reflect and speak critically and prophetically against any black politician black, especially the President ignores our people.Even the great Cornel West has been chastened to silence by the administration’s top academic agent, Melissa Perry. Get too critical and you may find yourself on Fox News and off of MSNBC–and no where to go for Black History month.
In all seriousness, there is the loss of the prophetic that used to come from the ‘scholarly’ and professional class to our electoral leaders. Gone is the prophetic voice that calls the president out for the hypocrisy of million dollar fundraisers in LA and failing to stop by a single black church or the ‘hood just to check in on the folks while on one of Bus tours. Gone is the demand that rather than playing hoops with Jay-Z and Reggie or a round of golf with his boys, that he turn his attention to the fact that 1 in 3 African American men will be on parole and will find a hostile re-entry to the world of employment. Yet, because we have demanded nothing from this President, nothing has been given. Let me just put it this way in the most stark progressive electoral check list: Environmentalists (check). Union (check). Latinos (Check). Women (double check). LGBT (check).
What did black folks get–nothing, NADA, Zip. Not meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus (which he only had 2 in 2011); not photo ops; not even an in person visit to the NAACP since 2009 during an election year(by the way, the only thing on his schedule that day was as CNN confirmed was an interview with CBS News). Even as violence threatens to kill more black men in Chicago than in Afghanistan this year, Mr. Obama did not make a stop to discuss it or hold a summit even though he went home this year for Valarie Jarrett’s daughter’s wedding and to cast a vote for his own election ( He did mention it in a recent interview to MTV). Yet, when the shooting tragedy emerged in Colorado, the President made a bee-line to give comfort and express solidarity immediately. In world where all lives should be equal, the only thing that could make the lives in Colorado more valuable than those in Chicago, is electoral politics. I need to believe that because the alternative is to believe that the President doesn’t care–and I just don’t want to believe that.
Brothers and Sisters, communities of color must hold ALL their electoral officials accountable–especially the ones who look like them. Gone should be the days when having a black face is enough to guarantee our support. If your congressman hasn’t shown up for work or votes in over 60 days but has the nerve to run for re-election, vote him out (that would be you Jesse Junior). If your congressman has a slew of ethics investigations hanging over his head (Charlie R., I am talking about you), vote him out. If the school board representative refuses to focus on the needs of all children but especially your own, then VOTE THEM out. If they refuse to speak truth to power, regardless of the color, sexuality, or religion of that power, VOTE THEM out. To do otherwise is electoral suicide and against the most fundamental principles of being an informed member of the electorate.
Is it fair to ask Mr. Obama to pay attention to the African American plight? Should we expect him to address these issues? After all, he’s not just the African American president, he is the President of the entire United States. To that I agree but I would also ask this one question: When in electoral history have you ever seen a candidate ignore a voting bloc that has been so loyal? So instead of asking President Obama to do it because we are black or because he is, shouldn’t we ask him to consider us because he gets almost all of our votes?
Is Mitt Romney going to be better? Honestly, I am not sure. Paul Ryan (and anyone who adheres to a Ryandian ideology) makes me incredibly nervous. But I do know that racial pride is not an electoral strategy or an ecclesial strategy (I am talking to you North Texas Conference). I am proud as hell of Gabby Douglas but if she left our community with 14% Unemployment and virtually ignored us for 4 years, I would vote her behind right off that balance beam.
Again, if you are a progressive, you should vote for Mr. Obama. If you are a member of the LGBT community, Latino, an Environmentalist, or from Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, or even Colorado, I believe Mr. Obama has made a strong case for re-election. Living in Texas, I have the luxury of using my vote for protest given that rarely does a Democratic vote rarely make a difference in this solidly Red state. On Tuesday, I will show up early to vote. I will vote for some Republicans and some Democrats. I will look at how I and my community (all of them) have fared under their leadership. We have important Senate and House races that demand a vote. But out of deference for too many African Americans who gave their lives for me to have this right –who fought dogs, were spit on, and drug through the dirt so that I would vote for the person that best represents our best hope, I will leave the ballot spot for President unchecked. I will leave it unchecked out of protest for our failure to hold Mr. Obama accountable. I will leave unchecked so he knows (ok he won’t know but in my Maria world he will) that he can’t just phone it in with me, he has to show up and work as hard for me as he does everybody else. I will leave unchecked, because he can do better and because somebody has to do it the only way an American can–not with a blog; or a quiet rant session; or a facebook post; but with a vote.
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