Barack Obama’s election marked a significant step in what black Americans call the long road to freedom. A survey conducted after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revealed that 82 percent of blacks believed they were “unlikely to soon achieve racial equality.” After Obama’s election, only 45 percent held that belief. Many black people regarded his victory as a personal triumph, a vindication or renewal of their faith in the American Dream. And so it was.
This fall, most African Americans will undoubtedly support the president’s re-election, and not simply because of racial solidarity. For them, the Republican alternative is no alternative. The Republican primaries, which featured Newt Gingrich’s veiled appeals to white supremacy and Rick Santorum’s new spin on Reaganite talk of “welfare queens” (“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”) left most African Americans feeling that a political reunion with the GOP was impossible. And though Mitt Romney has said nothing so repulsive, that’s only because he has failed to address the issue of race at all; his rhetoric is colorblind. It’s no wonder that about 90 percent of African Americans approve of the job Obama is doing.
But approval is not the same as satisfaction. The president scored his lowest rating among blacks during the week of January 16–22, 2012, a period that began with the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Perhaps they were reflecting on how far many still had to go to achieve the American Dream. Black unemployment, which has been above 10 percent for most of the last fifty years, peaked at over 16.7 percent last year and, this spring, was at 14 percent. In addition, the net worth of black families was cut in half by the Great Recession, and there are more poor Americans today than at any time since the Second World War due both to population growth and failed antipoverty polices such as the Welfare Reform Act; a disproportionate number of these people are black.
The economic plight of many black Americans is not a result of Obama’s policies. The recession was raging before he took office. Still, the economic realities will have an impact in November. In 2008, 52 percent of black youth aged eighteen to twenty-four years old turned out to vote—the highest rate for that age group since the voting age was lowered to eighteen. But today, almost half of those young people are unemployed, and most have just a high school diploma and lack a ladder out of poverty.
The ambivalence many African Americans feel when they reflect both on their current problems and on the monumental victory of 2008 points to the irony of the Obama presidency. The first black president makes it more difficult for black activists to speak out and organize and thus helps to slow continuing improvements in the lives of black Americans.
FOR MOST of U.S. history, black activists focuse...
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