President Obama has the Black Vote, Now What? / "The Jackson campaign had a considerable impact on the election of other Black officials"

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President Obama has the Black Vote, Now What?
by Chigozie U. Onyema

I recently participated in a panel discussion on which candidate has the Black vote, President Barack Obama or former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Not surprisingly, the majority of the panelists concluded that President Obama has the Black vote. Such a conclusion is warranted, given the overwhelming Black voter turnout in 2008, Black loyalty to the Democratic Party, and a desire to see the first Black president elected to a second term. But where does that leave the elements of the Black community that are decidedly to the left of President Obama and the Democratic Party? How does that constituency seize this historic moment? Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Democratic primary campaign, and the state and local election victories that followed, may offer some insight.

For starters, the fact that President Obama has the Black vote ought to be distinguished from whether he should have the Black vote. Glen Ford, Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, often says President Obama is not the lesser of two evils; he is the "more effective evil." He points to Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act ("ACA"), as an example.

The ACA is the most significant regulatory overhaul of the United States’ health care system since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Medicaid and Medicare reform in 1965. It represents promising reforms in some areas, namely allowing young people to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26 years old, and not allowing health insurance companies to deny coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions (although this aspect of the legislation has many loopholes). However, on balance, the ACA seems to favor health insurance company profits over people.

According to Physicians for a National Health Program ("PNHP"), the new law (1) will not achieve universal coverage, as it leaves at least 26 million uninsured, (2) will not make health care affordable to Americans with insurance, because of high co-pays and gaps in coverage that leave patients vulnerable to financial ruin in the event of serious illness, and (3) will not control costs. This is so, because the ACA preserves, and in some cases exacerbates, the dominant role of the private health insurance industry. Each year, according to PNHP, that industry siphons off hundreds of billions of health care dollars for overhead, profit, and the paperwork it demands from doctors and hospitals; denies care in order to increase insurers’ bottom line; and obstructs any serious effort to control costs.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, created the model for the ACA in the late 1980’s. The Republican Party promoted the model during President Clinton’s first term, and former Republican Senator Bob Dole ran on it in the 1996 presidential election. Furthermore, Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, signed a precursor to the ACA into law in Massachusetts.

Republicans tried unsuccessfully during President Clinton’s tenure to pass an analogue to the ACA, hoping that it would upset the prospect of a more equitable healthcare model. The first Black president, however, succeeded early in his first term. If one accepts that conservative policies that favor rich and powerful corporations at the expense of the working class are undesirable, or "evil," then the ACA example could substantiate Ford’s assertion that Obama is the "more effective evil."

In spite of Ford’s critique, Black people will vote for President Obama in droves. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, the Black voter turnout rate was 65.3 percent, the highest ever, and nearly matched whites at 66.1 percent. In addition, 95 percent of Black voters voted for President Obama. The Black voter turnout rate may decline in 2012, since the novelty of the first Black president has subsided and President Obama’s policies have largely ignored Black communities. But the percentage of Black voters that vote for President Obama is likely to remain above 90 percent. Given that reality, Black people that find Obama to be the more effective evil should consult Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Democratic primary campaign for one way to remain politically engaged in the community, while navigating the current electoral climate.

Rev. Jackson ran in a crowded Democratic primary election field in 1984. His campaign registered nearly 2 million voters and exit polls showed that as many as 12 percent of all Black voters were doing so for the first time. Although Rev. Jackson lost the election, according to the late Dr. Ronald Walters in Freedom is Not Enough, substantial increases in registered Black voters in New York City, and Jackson’s victory in the Virginia caucuses, facilitated subsequent victories by David Dinkins (the first Black mayor of New York City) and Douglas Wilder (the first Black governor of Virginia). In addition, the Jackson campaign had a considerable impact on the election of other Black officials, as the number of Black mayors increased by thirty-one in 1984, the largest number in history.

As such, an alternative for Black people that do not agree with Obama’s policies or the Democratic Party’s platform, but still recognize that Obama has the overwhelming support of the Black community, is to use his candidacy and the newly registered voters that follow, to win local, and to a lesser degree statewide, campaigns. This requires voter registration and voter education on upcoming local campaigns. One example of an important local campaign is an upcoming referendum in Newark, New Jersey. It will decide how one of the city’s most valuable assets, its water, is managed.

In many ways, local politics have a deeper impact than national politics on people’s everyday lives. Local politics affect outcomes related to land use, schools, public safety, and the provision of city services. Moreover, government contracts most accessible to Black businesses and Black labor are dispensed at the local level. In this sense, the adage "all politics is local" rings true. That is not to say that Presidential politics are not important. Among other things, Presidential politics shape the way resources are distributed to local communities. But at this stage, the progressive elements of the Black community stand a far better chance of winning an important local referendum or electing a progressive city councilmember than affecting Presidential politics.

This approach, like all others, is not without limitations. Local referendums and local candidacies may not yield the desired results, because of the structural flaws of the political system and personal flaws of those that administer it. Thus, Black progressives are forced to search for light in dark places. As Columbia University Professor Charles V. Hamilton puts it in The Black Experience in American Politics, the dilemma throughout the Black experience in politics has been

"[O]n the one hand, to advocate political involvement in institutions deliberately designed to disappoint and therefore lead possibly to alienation and withdrawal on the part of Blacks; on the other hand, to counsel non-participation and non-cooperation with no acceptable alternative and therefore lead possibly to a vacuum and alienation. From Reconstruction on, this had been the unenviable role of black leaders—i.e., to chart a course that avoids these results and at the same time to engage in political action calculated to bring about some meaningful benefits."

Notwithstanding this seemingly impossible dilemma, local politics offer Black progressives the best hope in the electoral arena to affect a variety of outcomes. President Obama’s candidacy, like Rev. Jackson’s before him, could be a way to win local campaigns.

Chigozie U. Onyema is a Policy Analyst at a national non-profit. He is interested in the impact of race and class on public policy. He earned his J.D. from NYU School of Law and his B.A. from Howard University.

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