San Francisco Chronicle, September 26, 2012
A large majority of black Americans who head to the polls in November will vote for President Obama, but the question is whether they will turn out in the numbers he needs given the election lacks the symbolism of the 2008 contest.
Obama, who has rarely spoken of race since his election, has faced criticisms that he failed to tackle black unemployment, which was 14.1 percent in August, compared with 8.1 percent overall. His opponent, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, formed a Black Leadership Council this month to try to connect with black voters on economic issues.
But many black voters and academics say they are seeing black support coalesce around Obama as the election nears. The motivation stems from excitement about a second Obama term and the fear that a Romney-Paul Ryan victory would roll back progress that has been slowly building in the African American community over decades, black voters in the Bay Area say.
"Everybody's scared of Romney, of cutting more services," said Maurice Edwards, 45, of Oakland, who has been unemployed for two years.
Black community leaders are in the midst of a major voter-registration and mobilization drive, counting on churches, black fraternal organizations and barbershops to rally support.
They have also been trying to galvanize voters by warning of the impact of new voter identification laws. Thirty-three states have enacted such laws - some are tied up in legal battles - and opponents contend they are a Republican ploy to discourage minorities, the young and other Democratic-leaning groups from voting.
"We are engaged in, really, a battle - and this is a battle - to protect the fundamental, constitutional right to vote," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said at a "voter protection" event in Oakland this week. Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus held similar events around the nation Tuesday to protest the laws, which proponents say are meant to root out voter fraud.
Michael McBride, a pastor at The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, said several congregations are responding to the voter ID laws with an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort. As part of a national campaign to fight voter suppression of blacks and Latinos, he was distributing T-shirts at the event Tuesday that read "Let My People Vote" and featured a picture of a black man with his hands bound by an American flag.
The outcome of the presidential race in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina could swing on black turnout. It will be difficult for the Obama campaign to match 2008's turnout, political experts have said, and Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage could depress black turnout, particularly in North Carolina.
And while gays and Latinos can pinpoint Obama administration policies that have benefited them, black voters - perhaps Obama's most loyal constituency - lack such an initiative to rally around.
But race may have prevented Obama from aiding blacks with directed policies, black scholars said, adding that he has had to try to help African Americans in race-neutral ways to avoid looking like he was favoring them.
"He couldn't afford to be painted as the candidate of blacks," said Charles Henry, a professor emeritus of UC Berkeley's African American studies department. "Any targeted program for blacks would be seen as preferential treatment."
A Pew Research Center poll released last week found black voters nationally are as engaged in the upcoming election as they were in 2008, despite a falloff in interest among all voters. The poll showed 92 percent of black voters support Obama, and 2 percent support Romney; in 2008, Obama carried 95 percent of the black vote.
"Most black folks don't hold Obama responsible for the black unemployment rate," said Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. "Some people say he should have done more, but people understand the constraints he had."
Give him more time
Lynette Gailord of Oakland, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said Obama should be given more time to turn around the country. She said Romney and Ryan, whom she dubbed "Ridiculous and Radical," would cause blacks to lose ground.
"God could have created the Earth in one day" but took several days, said Gailord, 59, who attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate. "You can't do everything in one term."
Although neither candidate is talking about it, race is playing a role in the election.
James Taylor, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said some black voters would think Obama's race hurt him if he lost.
Blacks also see some of the attacks on Obama - including that he is the "food stamp president" and the false accusation that he was not born in the United States - as racial in nature, voters said.
"We live in an era now of code words," Lee said in an interview. "Race is still a factor. We can't sweep that under the rug."