Do Black People Support Obama Because He’s Black? (Why Are We Still Having This Conversation?)


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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Urban League Convention at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., July 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The AP concern-trolls about whether black people side with President Obama because he’s black after a handful of Negroes on Twitter were mean to Stacey Dash. No, seriously:

Surviving slavery, segregation and discrimination has forged a special pride in African-Americans. Now some are saying this hard-earned pride has become prejudice in the form of blind loyalty to President Barack Obama.

Are black people supporting Obama mainly because he’s black? If race is just one factor in blacks’ support of Obama, does that make them racist? Can blacks’ support for Obama be compared with white voters who may favor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, because he’s white?

These questions have long animated conservatives who are frustrated by claims that white people who oppose Obama’s policies are racist. This week, when a black actress who tweeted an endorsement of Romney was subjected to a stream of abuse from other African-Americans, the politics of racial accusation came full circle once again.

If only there was just some history of black voters casting ballots for presidential candidates who weren’t black! That 88 percent of black voters who sided with John Kerry in the 2004 general? A fluke. The 90 percent of black voters who cast ballots for Al Gore in 2000? Outliers, prolly. The 83 and 84 percent of black voters who voted for Bill Clinton, the 89 percent who favored Michael Dukakis in 1988, the 91 percent who rode with Mondale in 1984, or the 83 percent that voted for Carter in 1980 and 1976? The AP apparently needs more data before it it’s willing to describe this as a consistent pattern.1 Let’s help them out, then: Black people vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and have done so for about six decades for a host of reasons.2

Yes, Obama’s blackness obviously informs the way lots of African-Americans view him and his presidency; it’s pretty safe to say that his blackness informs the way lots of everybody views his presidency. But it’s also a really bad idea to assume that there’s some kind of uniform, uncomplicated orientation toward Obama even among his black supporters.3 Obama has also had lots of vocal and prominent African-American critics, from Tavis Smiley on economic issues to Jamal Bryant on social issues. For the purpose of this article’s premise, the AP strings together a bunch of random comments from well-known black people who say that they’re riding with the president because he’s black and calls it a pattern, but ignores the many obvious counterexamples out there.

But you know what else didn’t magically start during Obama’s presidency? Some black people calling other black people sellouts because they’re Republicans. Back in February, I sat on a panel at the New York Times with Ron Christie, who worked on Dick Cheney‘s staff and who is quoted in this AP story, and he told a story about how Maxine Waters chewed him out in her office because of his political affiliation. This isn’t okay, but it also isn’t new. (Again, for the purpose of this article’s premise, the AP gamely pretends that Clarence Thomas doesn’t exist.)

The “black people” umbrella comprises 40 million souls who live in different places, come from an array of different faith traditions, hail from different countries with their own specific histories, and who converse in a spectrum of tongues and idioms across several generations and socioeconomic strata. There is no Black Experience and Black Culture and Black Community — there are countless black experiences and black cultures and black communities. You will always be able to find a non-zero number of Negroes who hold any number of beliefs, and likewise, a few dozen or few hundred Negroes on Twitter who tweet dumb stuff at people. There are so, so many ways that this isn’t a story.

1Or not: the reporter, Jesse Washington, notes that blacks have a long history of voting for Democrats — but not until story’s 16th graf. So, basically: this story is bullshit but we wanted to run it anyway, because CLICKS. Starting to notice a pattern here, AP.

2 A bunch of those reasons have as much to do with Democrats as they do with Republicans. There’s obviously the Republican Party’s specific racial history. During the Republican National Convention, I had a long conversation with Michael Steele, the former Republican chairman, who noted that the GOP’s attempts to siphon off black votes from Democrats is too narrowly focused on wooing Negroes with socially conservative Negroes, and that hasn’t worked anyway: “If you’re gonna play the culture-slash-values card, you’re going to get nowhere,” he warned. “A black child going hungry is not sitting there pining for a discourse on gay marriage, or hoping his belly will be filled because his mama and the Republican party are simpatico on abortion.”

And here’s Jam-Rock on The Root’s Confab podcast a few weeks back:

One of the things that bothers me about…political representations about African Americans is the assumption that because African-Americans vote predominantly democratic — overwhelmingly Democratic, let’s be honest — there therefore is not much diversity of thought in the black community. But I think any black person, anywhere, can tell you that that’s frankly not true and that the reasons for why African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic are very interesting [and] worth exploring and have more to do with the sort of political circumstances and social circumstances of black life over the last 50 years than they do with any particular ideological affinity. If Richard Nixon had gotten his way in 1960 and won the presidency on the strength of black support in urban centers, then we would be having a very different conversation about African-American political affiliation.

3Seriously, go read Jelani Cobb’s fantastic New Yorker piece on the messy implications of Obama’s presidency for the stories Americans tell ourselves about race.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.