BY SAM P.K. COLLINS
Mitt Romney has made his appeal to Black people at the NAACP Convention in Houston. In 2008, two-fifths of newly registered voters were Black. More than 90 percent of Black people voted for President Obama in the states that went blue, among them Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. Four years later, Obama’s greatest foe is not Romney but his record as president thus far.
If Mitt wants to score any kind of points with Black Americans, all he has to do is take a play from the President George W. Bush’s playbook. In a speech before the Urban League in 2002, President Bush asked the majority African American crowd, “Why should more than 90 percent of Black people vote for the Democrat in presidential elections when the worst schools in the country are big city schools for Black and Hispanic students?” He continued his speech later asking “How is it possible to gain political leverage if one party is never forced to compete?”
President Bush’s astute criticism served to highlight uncomfortable but legitimate questions that deserve answers.
Even in the age of President Obama, the nation’s first mixed race president; Blacks do not have a seat at the table. Direct engagement by the White House to Black Americans and their interests has been minimal when compared to that for other ethnic, cultural and interests groups. Vice – President Joe Biden, not the President, spoke to Black journalists at the NABJ Convention in New Orleans in late June and will speak on behalf of President Obama again at the NAACP Convention. Although the president has invited African American newspaper publishers to the White House, he has granted few interviews to the Black press since 2009.
Few have called him out on it. Even fewer have asked the hard questions. It’s easy to understand why that is the case. President Barack Obama has become a symbol of progress for Black America in the 21st century and still faces opposition from conservative extremists and people who question is legitimacy as president. Despite their apprehensions, Black people still feel the need to support someone whom they see as a son, uncle, cousin, or friend.
Perhaps no one knows this kind of love more than Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., also known as Chocolate City at one point for its majority Black population. Barry first entered office in 1979. Under his stewardship, the District suffered from high unemployment, crime, and ineffective city services.
In 1990, the FBI ran a sting operation on Barry where they ultimately videotaped him smoking crack – cocaine with a young woman. He was later sentenced to six months in federal prison. Even with a record as shameful as his, he was still voted into office again in 1994 with more than 50 percent of the vote. With a deficit between $700 million and $1 billion, Barry had to surrender the District’s financial operations to the D.C. Financial Control Board months after his victory.
Today he sits on the D.C. Council representing Ward 8, an area with the highest concentration of poor, African American people in the District. As the city goes through an urban renaissance, Barry’s constituents are no better off than they were when he was mayor. Despite this being the case, District residents affectionately call him “Mayor for Life” and overlook any wrongdoing on his part, even it was indicative of the sloppy operation he once ran.
This happens way too often in major cities with a high concentration of Black people all across the country. Over 60% of Black people are registered Democrats. Blacks are 13 percent of the U.S. population but represent more than 40 percent of the prison population. Black people face the same problems: Poverty, rising cost of living, under-performing school systems, crime, lack of healthy food sources and stifling unemployment. The latter, unemployment, is a cross cutting issue at the heart of this election that affects Blacks more than others. Although the national unemployment rate currently stands at 8 percent, Blacks currently face a rate of 14 percent.
What makes this narrative even sadder is that the elected officials in these major cities are Black Democrats elected by majority Black constituencies. Even at the local level, the most impactful level of civic engagement, people of color are ignorant of the potency of their bargaining power. Those who are skeptical have only the Latino and LBGTQ electorate to look to for evidence. Within two months, President Obama verbally endorsed same – sex marriage and his Department of Homeland Security issued criteria to halt the deportations of DREAM Act eligible, undocumented youth who meet certain criteria. Prior to these concessions, both groups had openly expressed their grievances and it was unclear at times which party they would support more, especially in the case of the Latinos. Overall, they were both successful in challenging the president and making him work for their support.
Now is the time to raise civic engagement in Black communities. There are many things they should ask of their public officials but none more than a transparent government, affordable housing, better schools, and higher quality city services. That goes beyond just voting for presidents and criticizing them in the comfort of their own homes, barbershops, and churches. Black people must actively engage their local, state, and federal governments and effectively lobby their elected officials until they see visible improvements in their way of life.
The White House should understand that African Americans understand what President Obama is up against. While it’s good to have pride for the enduring struggle towards the Promised Land, Black Americans must recognize the only a sustained tasteful, tactful , poignant and yes—public criticism of the President are likely to produce a long overdue response by the White House. Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley tried to make the White House see that, to the dismay of other Black Americans. The two activists were exercising their civic duty to demand a conversation on how President Obama could indeed meet some of the needs of the Black agenda. They were calling on their government and the party which they overwhelmingly support to do more. Whether the rest of the Black population will do the same has yet to be seen.