Black America, Barack Obama, and the racial backlash

Updated

Show me a poll and I will show you another that contradicts its findings. Show me another and I can introduce you to someone who can discredit all three based on sampling, contact methods, and introduced biases. Polls, by their very nature, are as imprecise and fallible as the people who conduct them.

It stands to reason that, with the November 6 presidential election just around the corner, it is getting tough to find more than a handful of political prognosticators who see eye to eye on the outcome. We disagree on Iowa, Colorado and Wisconsin. One poll shows GOP nominee Mitt Romney gaining traction in the battleground states, and still another shows him running rain-soaked and flat-footed in a storm. And then there are a bevy of divergent opinions about so-called “enthusiasm gaps” among conservatives, college students and non-white voters. Ask us about the voting preferences of mountain Yetis and you are sure to witness at least one full-throated diatribe about the voter suppression efforts targeting mythological creatures.

In the midst of the rancor, there is consensus on one thing: Barack Obama will win the black vote.

According to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released in August, Romney’s share of the African-American vote was zero. Margin of error aside, for the first time in history a presidential candidate may exceed 95 percent. Many, including whites and blacks, are pointing to Obama’s ethnicity as a deciding or at least informing factor—albeit for different reasons. Ironically, both groups point to racial prejudice as the culprit.

“Black people are racists!” someone shouted at me in a tweet. “You wouldn’t vote for him if he wasn’t black!”

African-Americans are not hesitant to count racial pride among our reasons. Photos depicting a rear shot of Obama with the words, “we’ve got his back” continue to make their way around the Internet. But we are equally as quick to point to the president’s policies and voice fears over what a Romney Administration might mean to social justice, women’s reproductive rights, health care reform and public education. Anticipated cuts to entitlements, Pell Grants, school lunches and the Head Start program, as spelled out in the Ryan budget, also top the list. We were not amused by Paul Ryan’s photo-op junket to a homeless shelter to re-wash clean dishes or his “poverty” speech.

While studies show black voters are less inclined to support the president’s position on marriage equality, we African Americans—by and large— often use words like “trust”, “fairness” and “honesty”; words almost never used to describe Romney or his running-mate.

But do we vote exclusively for black candidates? The answer is no.

“If we only voted for black people, we would’ve voted for Alan Keyes and Herman Cain,” said another tweet referring to candidates who garnered too little black support to fill a broom closet. Indeed, if the angry voices on the right were correct, Al Sharpton might have been hosting monthly card games at Camp David. Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte might have been guests in the Lincoln bedroom if Shirley Chisholm had her way.  And well, Jesse Jackson…

“The history of the American republic is black people having to vote for white people,” said msnbc host Chris Hayes on a recent broadcast. “No one votes for people of a different race more — more reliably and historically than African-Americans.”

Here is a history lesson. The fact is African-Americans have been voting not only for white candidates but for democrats since the close of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Sr. and those of his era (including my grandparents) had been Republicans. Black voters flocked to the “Party of Lincoln” upon passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 and voted that way for nearly 100 years.

“[Blacks] have been voting for white people for years and years and years and years,” Hayes continued.

However, they fled in droves when Dixiecrats – southern conservative Democrats who fought to preserve Jim Crow segregation laws – grew angry about civil right legislation, skipped across the aisle and joined to the GOP. The so-called “southern strategy,” often attributed to President Richard Nixon and popularized by his political strategist Kevin Phillips, sealed the deal.

Phillips is quoted in a 1970 New York Times article saying, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” Phillips successfully sought to polarize and win the largely white south.

“And you know who votes for white people, also?” Hayes said. “White people vote for white people.”

President Ronald Reagan built a national coalition on that notion. Reagan launched his presidential campaign in Neshoba County, just miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi where three civil rights workers were murdered during 1964’s Freedom Summer. His calling card was “states rights”, an intentional throwback to the Civil War.

Aided by reverse migration patterns, then Governor Bill Clinton turned the southern strategy on its head. When the polls closed in 1992, Clinton snagged 83 percent of the black vote. And no matter what you believe about Clinton’s policies, he was not the first black president.

I remember well America’s self-adulation upon the election of Barack Obama. My mother sat tearfully as she watched msnbc call state after state for Obama. We were hopeful that our worst days—the days of racial division and broken promises—were behind us. We were headed, we believed, for the glory of a post-racial America. For us, Obama was the embodiment of that ever-elusive American Dream.

“We are not as divided as our politics suggests,” Obama told us. Whites and blacks alike hitched their wagons to the hope of a new day.

An Associated Press poll released Oct. 27, tells a much different story. Rather than quell, our racial tensions have flared. According to the study, “The number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election.”

Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who co-developed the survey said, “As much as we’d hope the impact of race would decline over time…it appears the impact of anti-black sentiment on voting is about the same as it was four years ago.”

Regrettably, white poll respondents attributed stereotypical terms like ”violent” and “lazy” to blacks and Hispanics.

“When we’ve seen [racial] progress, we’ve also seen backlash,” said Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Some believe that backlash could cost Obama the election. In fact, if John Sununu and Donald Trump are any gauges, Republicans are still banking on “white fear”— the same fear that drove Reagan democrats to the polls in 1980. The late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms used the infamous “Hands” ad during his 1990 campaign, to stoke white fears of losing employment opportunities to blacks because of affirmative action.

Unfortunately, history tells us that those campaign tactics can be successful — especially in an economic downturn when everyone is scrapping for a job.

However, if early voting lines this year — some five hours long and largely populated by African-Americans — are any evidence, that gambit may pay off in they ways they may not expect.

The hateful bumper stickerswatermelons-on-the-lawn cartoons that deride Obama and the First Family asmonkeys and billboards depicting the president as a modern-day Hitler have their costs. So do t-shirts demanding that we “put the white back in the White House” and empty chairs dangling from trees.

A dog whistle, I’ve long said, does not discriminate. The dog that appears on your doorstep may well lick you in the face agreeably. Or it may be the one that bites you in your proverbial behind. In this case, that “bite” is coming in the form of a ballot. African-Americans have begun to show their displeasure for cheap political antics with a renewed enthusiasm.

They are not alone.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said on msnbc’sThe Ed Show, “My party, unfortunately, is the bastion of those people, not all of them, but most of them, who are still basing their decision on race.”

“Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists. And the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin. And that’s despicable.”

It must be said that racial prejudice is not party neutral. The poll found that although white Republicans are much more prone to express racial prejudice, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans and about half of political independent held anti-black feelings.

Do African-Americans harbor racial prejudice? Does it inspire some to vote for a reasonably palatable black candidate whenever possible? Surely. Much of it comes as a result, not of feeling superior, but from generations of fighting for basic human rights. It comes from being locked out of opportunity, then being expected to embrace the American Dream with our whole selves as if it were ours all along. As human beings, we all carry some level of bias—whether it is about food, soap or each other. But, it is fool’s gold to conflate racial animus with voting motivated by intra-cultural gratification.

“President Obama has become one of the most divisive presidents in American history,” said vaunted GOP strategist Ed Gillespie. He is not alone in his thinking. Republican talking heads and Fox News pundits have been spewing the same vile. Sununu painted him as “lazy”, “unengaged” and “not that bright.” Trump thinks he plays too much basketball and may not put in the necessary work to earn his Ivy League degrees.

To his credit, the president has not succumbed to vicious stereotypes.

“We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world,” Obama said as he eulogized the victims of the Arizona shootings in January 2011. “But I know that how we treat one another, that is entirely up to us.”

Goldie Taylor is an msnbc contributor and editor of The Goldie Taylor Project. Follow Goldie on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor.

Black America, Barack Obama, and the racial backlash

Updated