HOW FAR WE’VE COME: President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The past week reminded us once again (as if we needed reminding) how racialized American politics has become since Barack Obama became our first African American president four years ago.
For many, President Obama’s historic victory signaled an evident shift toward what some called a “post-racial America.” Even those who rejected such talk conceded that Obama’s election was proof that our nation has grown in a positive direction.
In July, Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington examined the effect that President Obama’s election has had on the nation. According to Washington, shortly before the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization poll said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. One day after his victory, 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.
But once Obama settled into the White House, it became clear that the president’s race — instead of becoming a nonissue in a post-racial era — would become a subtext of his every move and lead many of his opponents to level racially tinged charges against him (e.g., “He was born in Africa,” “He’s a closet Muslim,” “He’s a socialist,” “He’s hates America,” “He hates white people”).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Barack Obama, America’s first black president, speaks near a portrait of George Washington, America’s first white president. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
Just this past week alone, the president was described as “a retard” by one high-profile pundit, and accused of “shucking and jiving” by a former vice presidential candidate. Then, after respected Republican statesman Colin Powell again endorsed Obama for president, John Sununu, a surrogate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, suggested Powell supports Obama because they share the same race. This adds juice to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Wednesday that found the 2012 election is turning out to be the most racially polarized presidential contest since 1988.
Now comes word today of a new Associated Press poll that finds racial attitudes have not improved during the four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. In fact, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.
This leads us to wonder how racial progress might fare under a second term for President Obama. Or, whether things would improve or get worse under a Mitt Romney presidency that, presumably, would not be as haunted by the specter of race the way that President Obama’s has.
What do you think? Has President Obama’s time in office improved or worsened race relations in America?
WELCOME TO TAMPA: Some 200 protesters braved inclement weather from Tropical Storm Isaac today to rally against the presence of the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida. Protesters cried out against Republican policies on immigration, health care, and the economy. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/Newscom)
News that a Republican candidate is getting a low percentage of the black vote typically draws a yawn.
But prominent black Republicans, such as Romney-Ryan adviser Tara Wall, likely gasped at the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that suggests the ticket is currently getting zero percent of the black vote. How do you get zero percent with all those #BlackConservativeForMittRomney tags on Twitter?
Truthfully, the poll’s results aren’t literal, being within the 3.1 percent margin of error. But there’s a link between the poll and Romney’s actions that should cause black Republicans like Wall to do some soul-searching.
Since May, Wall has been Romney’s senior communications adviser emphasizing African American outreach (UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller spoke to her back in June). Wall held a similar role with President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign where he gained 11 percent of the black vote. She’s among a group of black advisers who have been schooling (apparently not well) Romney on what black voters need to hear from him. They don’t expect to outpoint the nation’s first African American president, but want Romney to at least hold on to the 4 percent of the black vote that McCain received in his 2008 loss to Obama.
I interviewed Wall last week on my radio show and her comments about the poll were predictable: You can make numbers say anything you want. Obviously, black Republicans weren’t among those polled. Excitement for President Obama has dipped as people continue to struggle economically. Efforts to appeal to black voters are gearing up (at this writing there was no section on Romney’s website under the “communities” geared specifically towards black or Hispanic voters).
However, I was struck by Wall’s response concerning the GOP’s elephant in the room — its race-baiting tactics.
It’s often said that blacks, particularly black Christians, are as socially conservative (pro-life, pro traditional marriage) as the Republican platform claims to be. So why aren’t black voters aligned with Republicans over Democrats? The GOP’s racist bent is what keeps black voters at bay. Wall objected passionately.
“That’s false. I reject that notion,” she said. “… Racism comes in many forms. I think that is a discussion in a broader context that we as a community have to have on an ongoing basis. But to simply blanketly [sic] say that Republicans don’t speak out and are racist, I think that’s patently false. There are racist elements in society everywhere and in every party and in every place.”
TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Tara Wall is charged with shaping the Romney campaign’s communication strategy — including its message to the black community, which is presently showing no love for Mitt.
That last sentence is certainly true. Democrats play race games as well and President Obama has been tepid on addressing racism. However, it’s well documented that much of today’s Republican base is of the Dixiecrat tradition — anti-big government, pro-state’s rights, segregationists. In response to Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson signing civil rights legislation in the 1960s (Northern moderate Republicans urged him to), Southern conservative democrats began fleeing to the GOP. They were lured by the GOP’s “Southern strategy” during the Goldwater and Nixon years. To compete with Democratic gains, the GOP saw white southerners as fertile ground for new voters. Understanding the buttons to push, they stirred fears of big government and black people to win them over. No deep ideological motive, just money + votes = power.
Blue states turned red. The party of Abraham Lincoln took on the spirit of Andrew Johnson. Blacks fled the GOP. The legacy continues today.
Wall and other black Republicans know this history well. She has been among those critical of the GOP’s alienating minorities, especially in light of America’s “browning” as Hispanic populations grow. She has even produced a documentary about this titled, Souled Out that has apparently been tucked away for the moment.
As an independent who votes his interests, I admire black conservatives who are truly sincere in their beliefs to diversify the GOP. Think about it. If Romney beats Obama, who would be at the table of influence in the West Wing fighting for black issues? We need advocates in both political parties. Besides, there are sellouts on both sides who dine and grow fat as the masses of black people suffer from high unemployment, health disparities, incarceration rates, and wealth gaps.
The gentleman in me held my tongue from lashing out at Wall about the race baiting. I didn’t have to. The following day her boss, during a campaign stump in Michigan where he and his wife, Ann, were born, pulled a line from the Southern strategy playbook. Before an overwhelmingly white audience, Romney quipped: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
It was an obvious wink to the birthers who believe Obama is un-American, unqualified, and should go back to Africa.
MAN ON THE RISE: Herman Cain at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last week. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)
While reports of his imminent demise persist, Herman Cain is nonetheless “raising cane” in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, a just-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll places him as the current frontrunner in the GOP race for president.
He’s been termed a “marginal candidate” by the likes of conservative operatives like Fred Barnes.
He’s been deemed unelectable by likely voters.
He’s been charged by conservatives like Michael Medved with the crime of “needlessly” playing the race card when he called a spade a spade in his repudiation of the “N-word” scrawled on an edifice at the Perry family ranch.
Yet, Cain rises.
Despite the pessimism of prognosticators, pundits, and party elites, businessman Herman Cain has emerged as the “yes we can” of the political right.
Compared to the presumed nominee Mitt Romney, Cain has managed to inspire the right’s base. Cain musters 31 percent support from self-described conservatives, compared to Romney’s 15 percent support among the same. Tea Partiers are sipping the Cain Kool-Aid too, with 24 percent support of their heft backing Cain and only 17 percent support for Romney. Pure social conservatives love Cain too — while he came in second place at the Values Voter Summit this month, Tony Perkins of the host group, the Family Research Council, noted that Cain was the obvious winner since 600 of Ron Paul’s minions conveniently flooded the conference only for the Straw Poll on the Saturday morning of the conference.
Perkins said values voters are excited by Herman Cain. “He is a success story,” Perkins told CNN. “If you look at his life — how he has grown up and how he was successful in the business world, and those principles of hard work, of faith, of following the teachings of Scripture and Jesus Christ — he is an example of that, and it’s reflective in his success.”
What are we to make of this apparent surge? Whether Democrat or Republican, ambivalent or animated about the primaries, it would be wise to take Cain’s candidacy seriously.
Recall that four years ago, a rising star in the Democratic primary race was counted out as inexperienced and unelectable, despite his rousing oratory. And he’s now President.
Comparisons of Cain to President Obama are inevitable for obvious reasons. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Republicans sought their own “Black Conservative” answer to the phenomenon that is Barack Obama. Yet, this time the candidate isn’t a drafted carpetbagger who’s being rushed onto the stage solely because of his skin color and loud voice. Cain appears to be his own man.
Pundits and pollsters have too easily dismissed Herman Cain’s candidacy, but the conservative base appears to have a new anointed one — at least for the time being. He’s not the clear frontrunner just yet, but he’s certainly raising cane in the Republican contest. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that Michele Bachmann (remember her?) and Rick Perry had all the buzz and momentum. In a GOP race that discards the favored ones just as quickly as it elevates them, can Cain keep it up?