In last week’s edition of this publication, columnist Patrick Hunter essentially took U.S. President Barack Obama to task for a perceived lack of full engagement with the African-American community.
While periodically acknowledging that Obama is President of all America, the writer nonetheless went on to hold the President to an expectation in clear conflict with his role. Please allow me to articulate a few points which are worth considering, in assessing the Obama Presidency in respect of its benefits to African-Americans.
Let us remember, at the outset, that according to the latest U.S. census figures, African-Americans make up just 13 per cent of the American population. In the scheme of things, where Hispanic Americans come in at around 16 per cent, Black America has no monopoly on the swing effect in presidential races. Further, it is well known that a significant proportion of Black voting-age Americans either don’t vote or cannot vote. Those who cannot vote often have no proper identification, are incarcerated or otherwise restricted. And then not uncommon to open democracies, there is a proportion of any electorate which simply has no burning desire to help determine the leadership of their country.
The African-American community therefore does not have within it a sufficient bloc of independent political capital with which to defend and sustain President Obama, should he lose support from other important ethnic and ideological segments of the population. It would be political suicide, therefore, for him to dedicate an inordinate amount of his time or legislative agenda to the narrow interests of Black America.
Considering the margin of victory in the last presidential election, it is clear that African-Americans were not the largest ethnic group to vote for Obama. Why then would one of the smallest blocs of voters be the beneficiaries of an overwhelming proportion of presidential largess? That’s just not how politics work. Not in America, not in Canada and not anywhere else.
How often do we, right here in Canada, lament at the scant regard many of our politicians pay to the African-Canadian community? The same corollary obtains here, where the community is not sufficiently engaged and activated to present itself as a critical voting bloc, demanding attention from the political authorities. Sadly, often in municipal communities where African-Canadians are a major force, we still fail to win or retain seats.
In instances where African-Canadians are elected in municipal and provincial ridings, a careful look at the demographics show that African-Canadians do not make up the majority of residents or votes in the riding. It therefore means that other ethnic communities overwhelmingly help to elect the candidate of African-Canadian heritage.
We do not in Canada expect that these politicians will redirect resources unevenly towards African-Canadians and community causes, at the expenses of the rest of their constituency obligations. Why then would President Obama be expected to do so? And why the disappointment that he has not? Sadly, there appears to be an unreasonable expectation of preferential treatment, simply on account of Obama being Black – a wholly preposterous expectation, irresponsibly peddled by opinion shapers who should know better. It is this type of political short-sightedness which sinks many a dream, long before it could be brought to fruition.
Rather than add to President Obama’s woes in this election year, African-Americans would do well to get out the votes now more than ever. Black America should be working harder than they did in 2008 to help re-elect their first Black President.
Even if the kind of deferential attention they crave is going to happen, it cannot, as Hunter pointed out, happen in Obama’s first term. Like conciliatory missile treaties with Russia, the deep and authentic discussion on race and inequality in America cannot take place in the first presidential term. These are issues which require significant amounts of political cover and a Commander-in-Chief needs to be able to act with certainty of purpose, without worrying about the next election and alienating donors and supporters. It is therefore foolhardy for Black America to think it is “punishing” Obama by disengaging from the political process this time around. They are only hurting their own interests.
None of this is intended as blind defence of the Obama Presidency thus far. There is much that he has not attended to and there is genuine disappointment with the pace of progress on some key manifesto items that Obama championed in 2008. In fairness, though, this has been a presidency pre-occupied with one of the most stubborn economic downturns in recent history and an inherited war, simultaneously draining the treasury. In addition, almost the entire term was spent drafting, selling and defending the universal health care file; all this while his very legitimacy to sit in the White House was being constantly challenged and questioned by powerful forces in Washington and beyond.
We need to cut the man some slack. No disrespect to the African-American community but the brother had bigger fish to fry!
The President also has no obligation or imperative to tell Black America that he is holding out for a second term before he acts forcefully on the Black file. Political wisdom informs itself of this. And it is unfair to cast Obama as an Uncle Tom who has not engaged the Black community. One remembers the reprimand he received from elements of Black America when he called for responsible family structures and a refocusing of priorities in the community. One prominent Black activist even sotto-voice threatened to castrate him.
Should the Republicans win in November, Black America could find itself on the back burner, for there may be the belief that “they” got their turn already. So it is incumbent of every African-American to abandon the silly “what have you done for me lately” wagging finger towards President Obama and instead get out and volunteer and help reflect him.
While there is no guarantee that he will pay greater attention to the “Black file” after November, at least he would have the political capital to expend, if he chooses to. Some of the boldest acts by incumbent Presidents occurred during their second term of office.
Perhaps the most potent question at hand is not what African-Americans want from Obama but rather, what does Obama need from African-Americans? And to that he would say, go out and vote!
Dan Hamilton is a Toronto-based marketing executive and current affairs observer.