Black Voters Put Focus on Jobs, Economy

Economic and employment opportunities are much on the minds of black voters during this presidential campaign season. Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, notes "there is something of a permanent recession in the black community."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've just heard how Hispanic voters and seniors helped John McCain win in Florida, and we've been reporting this week on some of the different voter groups candidates are after. Today we look at the black vote, and Ron Walters is here to help us. He is the author of "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics."

Good morning.

Mr. RONALD WALTERS (Author, "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics"): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Generally speaking, what issues are most important right now in the black community?

Mr. WALTERS: Well, when you look at the public opinion polling, the biggest issue is jobs and the economy. And that's important because blacks, they have a structural problem with the rest of American society. They experience double-digit poverty, double-digit on employment. In other words, there is something of a permanent recession in the black community. So the economy, of course, is the top. The second happens to be the health care, and then of course Iraq comes in there. Black Americans are the most opposed community in the country to the Iraq war.

MONTAGNE: A poll that was done by the Pew Research Center recently suggested a trend emerging of younger African-Americans who choose to identify themselves as independents. Are you seeing generational shifts among black voters?

Mr. WALTERS: No, we're not really seeing a generational shift in terms of political behavior. We're seeing a shift in terms of voter identification. The post-civil rights generation, they didn't experience, so that the depths of the things that made them adhere to one party, a lot of them objectively look at the Democratic Party and look at the good and the bad. So younger people identify more as independents. But when it comes to their vote, they vote very much like their elders.

MONTAGNE: Is there room for the Republican Party to make inroads into the black vote? Because there's certainly a fair number of areas in which African-Americans, you know, as a community would seem to be more likely to be Republican - church-going, family oriented.

Mr. WALTERS: Well, you're absolutely right. The black community is the most churched community in America, possesses a whole range of conservative values. The problem is that when you look at the voting issues, when you look at the sort of key quality of life public policies, and when blacks look at those and when they experience, for example, deep cuts in the programs that service their community, when they look at politicians sort of appearing to blame them sort of for their socio-economic status, there is a huge backlash to that kind of behavior. The party really has to change substantively in order for blacks to consider it to be a valid option.

MONTAGNE: There are those who would say that the emergence of Barack Obama signifies that the U.S. has finally begun to move beyond race in the sense that he can be embraced by people of all races, white people in particular. To what degree do you agree with that?

Mr. WALTERS: Well, it says very little about the wider pantheon of race in the United States. This year we have experienced one of the most racially charged years in American history, everything from the fact that Katrina still lingers, the Jena Six, a whole range of nooses evoking the damage and the horror of lynching.

So I wouldn't say that Barack Obama represents that we have got passed race in the United States, but I will say that it represents it. When somebody like him comes along, who is - appears to be, for all practical purposes, qualified, that a lot more Americans will be give him a very fair chance to be heard and even supported.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. WALTERS: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Ron Walters is director of the African-American Leadership Institute and professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland.

One more note now on the race for the White House. We're following reports this morning that Democrat John Edwards is ending his campaign. Edwards is expected to make an announcement later today in New Orleans, where he launched his campaign just over a year ago.

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