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When Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus in 2008 and it seemed feasible that a black person could become president, the issue of race and politics exploded in the media. Questions about whether white America would vote for a black president, if the bi-racial Obama was even really “black” or black enough, and whether he would pander to the black community were daily fodder for the pundits and news outlets.
Flash forward four years later and for some, the question of race is more complicated and frustrating than ever. On Tuesday, New America NYC assembled a panel of journalists and academics to talk about the role of race in electoral politics – particularly in the oval office. There seems to be no doubt that race still does matter – in this election, and in politics generally. But how much race matters and what that significance means is up for debate.
Fredrick Harris, a Columbia University professor and author of The Price of a Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Fall of Black Politics, said President Obama is radically different than Candidate Obama. He highlighted the contrasting priorities of the 2007 candidate who championed criminal justice reform, supported protesters in Jena, Louisiana, and called for a federal racial profiling law, with a president that has pushed for few policies targeted to the black community.
Kai Wright, editorial director of Colorlines and a fellow at The Nation Institute, said that Obama’s race is sometimes a distraction that hides a fundamental strategy and attitude shift within the party. He said that Democrats have moved away from race-specific politics to a more universalist, "race-neutral" strategy. That’s a result, he believes, of the welfare and immigration reforms of the ‘90s which some say have been detrimental to people of color.
“Barack Obama stepped into a party with that understanding [that the Democratic Party would be shifting gears to advocate more race neutral politics and policies]. Symbolically he has not challenged it,” said Wright. He said some of Obama’s policies, like those related to infrastructure and healthcare reform, will benefit African-Americans. But the President hasn’t emphasized those tangential benefits. Wright worries whether this race-neutral stance can work against a Republican party that is “more than happy” to talk about race.
Gene Demby, a freelance journalist and founder of postbourgie.com, said that Obama can’t have a conversation about certain racially charged issues like welfare reform because race talk seems to distract the public from the political issue at large. When the president mentioned the Trayvon Martin case, Demby noted, "he said something that tried to humanize the conversation and really it became a different story.”
All mentioned how hard it was to be critical of Barack Obama within black society, but Harris said that it’s also hard for a president to “deliver” to the black community when many of the institutions that comprise it don’t have any specific platform. He believes the black community—meaning groups like the Urban League, Congressional Black Caucus, and NAACP — need to have specific focused goals. Right now, there’s “no clear agenda,” he said. Without that, it’s hard to push for change.
The panelists weren’t sure the Republican Party would promote policies to help the black community either, despite recent high profile leaders like Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele, former Secretary of State Condoleeeza Rice and former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain.
“This is not George Bush’s Republican Party,” said Wright, who reminded the audience that George Bush received 13 to 14 percent of the black vote in some places and started a dialogue with some black leaders.
So should the president do more to advance a dialogue about race?
Harris said that when Obama talks about race — like during the aftermath of the Henry Louis Gates robbery — white support remains the same, and favorability with blacks increases. Harris said he only saw drops in the president’s percentage of the white vote when the housing market began to plummet. The truth, he says, is “we don’t know what the possible [impact] would be if he went out and talked about these issues.”
- Reniqua Allen