Now that the Democratic Party Has Been Defeated, Should Black Voters Keep Their Faith in Obama?

Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

MY trainer, a 31-year-old black man, doesn’t vote. It doesn’t make any difference which party wins, he says. He doesn’t believe that President Obama is really in charge.

I respect my trainer. An injury last year ended his professional boxing career. He sometimes works 12-hour days, exhorting client after client. He and his girlfriend have a 3-year-old daughter; he is supporting his girlfriend while she earns a master’s degree. He himself did not go to college, but he got off the Harlem streets. He says that he saved himself from the player’s life of his father, who is younger than I am.

His ambition, his sheer work ethic, make it disheartening for me to hear him say that the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, or some secret council of white men straight out of Ishmael Reed’s early satires, control our destinies. This is the kind of thing black nationalists used to say in the 1970s, when they argued that to join the system was to fall for the white man’s con. To hear my young trainer give voice to such fatalism tells me how easily black people can lose faith in the democratic process, become disaffected, alienated, in spite of the amazing fact that there is a black man in the White House.

Nearly 50 years before Mr. Obama was first elected, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that racist whites were not the only obstacles to the black vote. Black people had to overcome the intimidation and fear they had internalized after centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow. The black vote increased significantly after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Civil rights organizations took an active role in the education of black voters, teaching them how to be comfortable with the exercise of the franchise. Black candidates won mayoral and congressional elections in the early 1970s, when the black population was concentrated in major cities. In the 1980s, black voters in the Democratic primaries made Jesse L. Jackson Sr.’s presidential bids more than symbolic. In the days of the Reagan and Bush backlashes, black candidates needed to have broad appeal, but the coalitions that elected Carol Moseley Braun a senator from Illinois, in 1992, Deval L. Patrick the governor of Massachusetts, in 2006, and Mr. Obama a senator, also from Illinois, in 2004, and then president, in 2008, had the black vote at their cores.

Black turnout outstripped white turnout in 2012, when Mr. Obama won every major demographic group — except white men. As the political scientist Martin L. Kilson notes in his recent book, “Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880-2012,” Mr. Obama stands at the apex of an African-American political class comprising 10,000 elected black officeholders in cities, counties and state legislatures, 43 members of the United States Congress, a black attorney general, a black national security adviser, black secretaries of homeland security and transportation, a black deputy White House chief of staff for policy, and other black policy makers and administrators. Yet — as Mr. Obama’s critics on the left point out — conditions for black people over all have sunk back to what they had been around the time of Dr. King’s assassination: more than a third of black children are born into poverty; there are more black men in the criminal justice system than there are black men in college; the median income of blacks has fallen; unemployment among blacks remains higher than the national average. As the former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert said, “We know all this, but no one seems to know how to turn things around.”

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Source: The New York Times | DARRYL PINCKNEY

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