James L. Taylor: Voting for Barack Obama : News & Views "Casting a vote for Obama is the cheapest way to fundamentally change the way Black Americans see America," writes James Lance Taylor.
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James L. Taylor: Voting for Barack Obama

Political Positions

"Casting a vote for Obama is the cheapest way to fundamentally change the way Black Americans see America," says James Lance Taylor.

In this week's installment of Political Positions, Taylor offers an essay titled, Voting for Barack Obama: Is It the Polls or Poles?

Taylor is associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and president-elect of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

When W.E.B. Du Bois wrote Souls of Black Folk just over a century ago, he discussed frustration with how others seemed to look at him, and blacks in general, as if to ask, "How does it feel to be a problem?"

The success of the Obama campaign seems to be stirring a renewed sense of confidence among segments of the larger African-American population. I cannot say for sure how widespread it is, whether it is mere anecdote or just a superficial impression, but many Americans of African descent seem especially locked into the implications of an Obama candidacy for their social standing in America.

Obama Addressing Crowd
Barack Obama addresses a crowd at a January 2008 campaign rally in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Michal Czerwonka, AFP/Getty Images

Long ago, Alex de Tocqueville argued, that if democracy were ever to be real in America, it would be through the improved social and equality statuses of blacks in the country; their status, then understood in terms of the whole group, would be the best evidence of the democratic capacities of the American social and political system.

The newest CBS/New York Times poll suggests that African Americans are enthusiastic over the Obama candidacy and campaign, but still pessimistic about the broad state of race relations between the major groups, namely blacks and Caucasian Americans.

Ironically, whites are more optimistic about the state of race relations and levels of racial discrimination than blacks. But three of ten are far more skeptical about Barack Obama and his potential presidency.

By a full three percentage points (91 to 88 percent), white respondents said that they would vote for a black candidate more than did black respondents. When compared to white voters, by one percentage point (six to five percent) blacks said that they would not vote for a black candidate. But they overwhelmingly support Obama. What gives?

It should be remembered that black American men and women were initially more enthusiastic about the Bill and Hillary Clinton campaign than the Obama campaign. Black women, by more than 10 percentage points, supported Hillary Clinton over Obama, who nevertheless had the support of three out of four black women.

Once Obama passed the "electability" test in Iowa, African Americans — across categories of gender, age, region, class, and ideology — became more open to the possibility of what, in the 217 years of the Office of the American President, was believed impossible in the lifetimes of most living Americans.

But we stand less than four months away potentially from one of the most important moments in, not just American, but Western World history; for only in Cuba (Batista is alleged to have had African ancestry) and Mexico, have men of African descent governed a non-African, Caribbean, or Haitian country in the modern world.

African Americans stand poised to evaluate, in Michelle Obama's words, "how we relate to this democracy." Nevertheless, hidden behind Blacks' enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy at a relatively low 83 percent — Bill Clinton was more favored in 1996 — is the detail that only six in 10 blacks are "enthusiastic" for Obama, with the remainder expressing that they are "satisfied, not enthusiastic," for Obama.

For whites, the same item showed only 19 percent having enthusiasm, while 36 percent expressed satisfaction without enthusiasm. Poor John McCain doesn't inspire double digits on the question among either group.

If the poll is to be believed, then there seems to be some rather complicated dynamics at work. Black Americans seem to be optimistic about Obama, but would be less inclined than their white counterparts to vote for a black candidate in general; even though it would transform, at least emotionally and psychologically, their relationship to American society.

Whites, who do not like Obama as much, are more inclined than blacks to vote for a black candidate. White respondents, at 55 percent, said that race relations in the country were "generally good," while 34 percent said, "generally bad." Blacks on the other hand, at 29 percent, said that race relations in the nation were "generally good," while 59 percent feel they are "generally bad."

Latinos, at 52 percent, feel relations are generally good and at 38 percent, felt they were generally bad. Does this suggest that Obama is not perceived as a "Black candidate,"? I don't think so. Could it be that African Americans have fallen in love with Obama? No, their enthusiasm is not as white hot as it is portrayed in the media. And the perception that he, according to Jesse Jackson, Sr., and others, panders to whites by "talking down to black people,"; his altered position on FISA; his un-nuanced position on Israel and Palestine; and reluctance to speak to concrete social justice issues, most which disproportionately effect lower-income people of color, might explain why Obama does not enjoy greater enthusiasm among Blacks.

But if they are cool on Obama, they are cold on the prospect that his potential election would trickle through the realities many experience in the cities and rural areas where they live. For instance, when asked, how they viewed race relations in their own communities, at 79 percent whites responded that they were "generally good," with 18 percent stating "generally bad."

Latinos responded at 73 percent that community relations were "generally good," and 34 percent, "generally bad." Black respondents expressed significant pessimism at 58 percent that things were "generally good," with 37 percent expressing that relations were "generally bad." The same poll shows that African Americans, at 59 percent, are the most skeptical of the three groups to believe that significant progress has been made among blacks since the 1960s; whites responded at 80 percent, while Latinos registered at 71 percent.

In fact, blacks also expressed most strongly (at 47 percent) that Latinos and other minority populations were fairing more poorly since the 1960s, with whites (at 58 percent) and Latinos (at 49 percent), believing other groups have faired better.

One possibility is that blacks are just a negative lot, generally. Another is that whites, and to a lesser extent Latinos, are just too damn happy. But who could be happy in this war-economy standing in line trying to get money out their banks before they go under? Or paying for $5.00 per gallon gas (I live in the Bay Area) in order to drive home to a house in jeopardy of being foreclosed on due to a subprime loan?

There is nothing novel about the responses in this poll as they relate to how different groups see race progress. Black Americans have been perennially skeptical of group to group relations, no matter how individual African Americans might excel in society (e.g., Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, or Barack Obama).

Obama Supporters
Obama supporters celebrate as a television screen announces Obama as the winner in the South Carolina's primary.

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images

In this fast-paced, ticker on your TV, round the clock news cycle media world we live in, the trauma of Hurricane Katrina — which ideally, all Americans felt in 2005, but didn't — might be easy to forget. No event so traumatized African Americans as a collective since perhaps the assassination of Dr. King.

The ubiquity of protests aimed at national media outlets that referred to black New Orleneans as "refugees" and "looters" reinforced longstanding feelings which African Americans, as a collective, have expressed. The high profile shooting of Sean Bell 50 times by NYPD and the officers' exoneration are yet more of the same. The general condition of poorer and low income housing, public education, employment, and daily violence and punishment experiences feed their reticence.

And no, I do not think in terms of a corporate, monolithic blackness that is unproblematic. In fact, despite the vast diversity of sexuality, gender, class, region, education, associations and so forth among black American individuals, their political attitudes and opinions tend to be stable on the kinds of questions raised above.

What might seem to be contradictory views on voting for a black candidate other than Obama and pessimism about racial progress — whatever that looks like — might suggest to us that blacks, despite being cynical about overall group relations, see some glimmer of hope, specifically in an Obama presidency.

That perhaps if Barak Obama became president, their relationship to the American society and body politic might improve. This was expressed among African women when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected in Liberia, recently. It was expressed among blacks South Africans when Mandela was released and apartheid dismantled in 1990.

It was experienced by Catholics when JFK was elected in 1960. It was expressed among physically disabled Americans when David Paterson recently became governor of that state. So what if this is only "descriptive representation"? Have we already forgotten what several generations of women expressed concerning the symbolic meaning of a woman president; even if that woman was Hillary Clinton?

If white voter support for Obama translates into some transformed meaning of racial politics in Americans, it will have to be something that people actually experience — on the ground, rather than by virtual reality or through cable TV. Casting a vote for Obama is the cheapest way to fundamentally change the way Black Americans see America; it is not akin to supporting protest demands for affirmative action, busing, or say, reparations.

Only the most cynical of the cynical would be inclined to suggest that Obama's election is just another election; that it would mean the same to immigrants from El Salvador as to African Americans; that it would mean as much to his enthusiastic college-aged white supporters, as to a 65-year-old Black Georgian who had to sit in the back of the bus before the Civil Rights movement.

Obama Supporters Cheer
Supporters listen as Barack Obama speaks following victory in the South Carolina primary.

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images

The Obama candidacy is almost collateral to the unresolved voluntary social distances between African Americans and whites (in churches, clubs, residency, many schools, in technological access); it has every thing to do with him, and it has nothing to do with him. Obama almost functions as a pawn in a game between the different groups that had been stalemate until his candidacy.

At the risk of being too philosophical, it is sort of as if both groups — whose DNA run through his veins — stand poised to speak to one another, racially, through Obama. After centuries of hate, distance, and dueling, a "love child" of the White Hatfields and Black McCoys, is trying to bring both sides of his family together.

If, after leaving the voting booths in November whites say a collective "Yes We Can!" enough to give Obama victory, then I suspect the wonderful shock to many ordinary African Americans might be something like, "I can't believe they did!"

This is as much about forging racial love where modern racial distance has replaced old naked racial hate. White people voting for Obama — despite being lukewarm on him in the polls — would heal all kinds of deeper anxieties African Americans express about their place in society, in the polls.

See, it is only now, after African Americans forged a Civil Rights Movement for the right to vote for white men, that we are hearing the stupid talk about a "post racial" America, signaled by whites finally opening up in being willing to vote for a Black candidate; Blacks have voted for whites since the 1860s, whenever they were permitted to vote.

Such a cherished but cheap price to pay — a vote for Obama — could potentially rewrite the past and future of America. One in which African Americans are no longer pariah to others, or pariah to themselves, because of the message his election and inauguration would convey.

The Obama campaign and candidacy has given renewed energy to conversations in the churches, barber shops, classrooms, book clubs and beauty parlors, nightclubs and juke joints, and on CNN. It is rather unscientific and anecdotal, but I have observed energy among many ordinary African Americans across the cities and states to which I have been traveling lately; a sense that major positive change is on the horizon.

Participation in the Democratic Party primary was unprecedented; voter registration and campaign contributions among Blacks have set records. Men are talking to one another about being responsible to their children. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been eclipsed.

Obama T-shirts are as ubiquitous today as Malcolm X caps were in the 1990s. Is Obama the solution to the drive-by? Unemployment and joblessness? Dead-beat dads? Failed education? The absence of hope that permeates too many Black communities? Will young people in the 'hood begin to relate more to their potential in Obama's America? I don't know. I hope so. Has anything else worked?

If conservative intellectuals are correct in arguing that America will not change its view of black people until black people change (particularly in the area of crime), then an Obama election might inspire that work among ordinary people.

People who have given up on and "quit America," as did Du Bois, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, and Randall Robinson, might be inclined to believe in America — again — or, be proud of being in it for the first time in their adult lives, like Michelle Obama.

Next week, CNN will present two days of discussion in a program called Black in America. I am afraid to watch it, because I doubt that they will tap the full meaning of what that has felt like for many people, but whatever it meant or means, it will not be the same should Barack Obama become President of the United States.

And maybe Du Bois's question of "how does it feel to be a problem?" might change to, "how does it feel now to really be an American?"

— James Lance Taylor