"I'm not voting for a Black man." This refrain, prevalent among white union members in NW St. Louis, mirrors continuing racism that was still the biggest obstacle to Barack Obama's election. Race-based issues, were temporarily, were offset by the financial meltdown that affected all groups, including straight-forward racists like the NW St. Louis crowd.
Early in the campaign, this column posed the question whether Barack Obama would be a change agent for Blacks. He obviously possessed exceptional political and oratorical skills as well as a unique gift for bringing people together, but this begged the question. Steeped in Democratic Party politics, would he take the risks involved in focusing on Blacks' concerns?
Obama's anticipated victory, notwithstanding, a definitive answer awaits his performance as president. Nonetheless, there's been ample time for impressions, if not firm opinions, and Blacks, his staunchest supporters are seeking some clarity. Actually, the indicators are fairly clear but not particularly encouraging: Thus far, Blacks' concerns do not appear to be a top priority for Obama.
Everyone recognizes the constraints of the presidency as well as those placed on him by the Democratic Party. (When it comes to big ticket items like immigration, education, housing, Iraq and the recent $750 billion carte blanche bailout benefiting banks and other financial institutions, there is little to choose from between the two parties.) Notwithstanding the obvious need to prevent the entire country from going down the drain, it is inconceivable that George Bush and his cohorts would respond with anywhere near the urgency or comparable financial largesse, if the nation-threatening crisis related to poverty or other crucial social problems.
The point is systemic constraints will effectively preclude Obama from specifically and/or overtly addressing Blacks' concerns. It is incumbent upon Blacks themselves to continually press Obama to address to important issues affecting Black communities.
During the campaign, there was little indication that Black leaders contemplated such a strategy or that Obama would be responsive if they had. Blacks were generally very deferential and reluctant to place any potentially controversial demands on him for fear of interfering with his trek to the White House. A kind of idolatry characterized a great many Blacks' perception of Obama and their specific concerns were scarcely mentioned. And, they will not be addressed in the future without unified leadership and resolve not evident since the 1960s. Tough issues must be seen as a challenge, not an excuse for hand-wringing that inevitably morphs into self-defeating inaction.
Euphoria abounds and people revel in Obama's audacity of hope. But his support is actually based more on their audacity of faith; most Blacks accept his leadership blindly, which of course, is a mistake. But until now, after all, most of us thought the idea a Black president was preposterous.
On the negative side, Obama's denunciation of Jeremiah Wright may have been politically correct, but given their long and close relationship, many considered his decision ethically reprehensible. Other Obama accommodations have been at odds with his previous positions on key issues.
Race does matter. Obama's presidency will be subject to existing race-based parameters, and Blacks, like other special interest groups, are not likely to receive special attention. While Obama symbolizes positive change throughout the world, he will not alter political realities here perceptibly--certainly not in the short term--a troubling contradiction. Nonetheless, the growing distrust of the U S by other nations will subside precipitously with Obama in the White House. Conclusion: Obama's meteoric ascendency is stunning, practically surreal, but does not guarantee substantive change at home. Supporters are convinced that he will initiate substantive political, social, and economic reform heretofore considered a pipe dream.
Obama's campaign was a continuously unfolding phenomenon, eventually attracting even staunch conservatives, in part because he represented an alternative to Bush's failed policies that negatively affected the entire nation. The recent meltdown graphically exposed his, and his administration's incompetency and wrongheaded policies that helped bring about the catastrophic meltdown.
Obama represented the audacity of hope, but it was the audacity of faith that propelled his campaign. And, If he was not Black the election would have been a slam dunk. He became a larger-than-life, almost messianic figure whose promises will be made real only if supporters, Blacks especially, require his respect and hold him accountable. Actual change requires new, progressive public policy designed to improve the quality of life for everyone, especially those most in need. Primary responsibility for such change rests not with Obama, but we the people.
Note: This column was written before the election, but its analysis and views obtain whether or not Obama was victorious.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail