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Super Tuesday, the Black vote and the Obama phenomenon

12 January 2008 at 11:36 | 1415 views


By Dr.Keith Jennings, Atlanta, Georgia.

Hilary Clinton’s surprising New Hampshire comeback last Tuesday sets the stage for a major contest between the two new political titans in the democratic primary campaign. The pollsters and media pundits, befuddled by the startling turn of events, are now searching for fingerprints of a last minute “Bradley Effect,” or a “do-or-die” sisterhood rally. But despite the recovery of the famed Clinton machine, Obama’s performance to date has shaken the foundations of conventional wisdom. And as the campaign travels southward for Super Tuesday, when 21 states hold their primaries, the unimaginable influence of African American voters may elude traditional calculations and campaign fortune telling.

Without a crystal ball at the start of this long campaign season, no one could have imagined the possibility of African Americans being in a position to play such a determining role in presidential politics, in spite of the large percentage of Democratic Party primary voters they represent in southern states from South Carolina to Arkansas. Most conventional observers would have had Hilary Clinton pegged to win with a mobilized machine, plenty of money and Bill Clinton as her secret weapon. But this was before Barrack Obama became the Obama who has raised over $100,000,000, mostly from individual contributions (97%) and who won the Iowa caucuses and came within three percentage points of winning the New Hampshire primary.

A number of observers have remarked that his Iowa victory speech was the best speech they had ever heard him make. Several even alluded to “Kingian” overtones in the speech. Still others have likened his speech to the message of the 1968 Bobby Kennedy and have circulated it widely on the internet.

Obama becoming Obama
Perhaps the best way to appreciate what is happening is to say there was one public perspective on Obama arising out of his speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention all the way through to the Democratic pre-primary debates. But after the Iowa victory, the victory speech and his New Hampshire performance, a bigger than life view begins to emerge.
There is a common thread between those events. Although Obama had previously won millions of white (and Black and Latino) votes before, it now appears that the experience of campaigning and the crystallization of a core message has helped him become the candidate who maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses and has the ability to touch something deep in the American psyche.

Accusations of hidden right-wing support designed to stop Hilary are out there. In fact, if you examine closely what the right-wing pundits from Limbaugh to Hannity to O’Reilly and Buchanan — who all make a living out of denouncing anything progressive or Black— are saying about Obama, you would think there must be a “stop Hilary” conspiracy. Indeed, GOP insiders are said to believe that Obama could be defeated much easier than Clinton. The Republican cross-over vote in open Democratic primaries might also lead some to think this is a ploy that will not be repeated in November.

There is undoubtedly a calculated "Stop Hillary" effort being orchestrated by the right-wing. However, if indeed the right-wing is encouraging whites to vote for Obama (as some suspect), it may well rebound to Obama’s advantage, because the more white votes Obama wins, the more legitimacy his candidacy gains among whites. Perhaps the right is underestimating the degree to which moderate Republicans are disillusioned with an endless war, the falling value of the dollar and a trillion dollar national debt.

Still, a popular myth among right-wing pundits is that Obama’s approach and appeal to whites is actually a repudiation of the politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton or in other words a type of Black Politics that openly confronts white racism in America. Whites no longer would suffer the discomfort of black grievance. The page can be turned to a colorblind society; all is forgotten if not forgiven.

The inconvenient truth is that Obama’s success is a product of the Civil Rights Movement and the victories won through hard fought struggles waged by people like Jackson and Sharpton. Moreover, we should note that there is a stark difference between the Jackson and Sharpton campaigns. In 1988, Rev. Jackson won 12 states, including Michigan, garnered close to 7,000,000 votes, and gained 1465 convention delegates. Sharpton only won 58 delegates and no primaries save for the District of Columbia. Many astute observers believe Jackson would have won New York and at least four more southern states in ’88 if Al Gore had not been convinced to stay in the race.

Obama’s message is a repudiation not of Jackson or Sharpton but the mean spirited, constitution shredding, torture sanctioning, war mongering, right-wing politics of fear and division. In so doing, Obama has positioned himself the ultimate “cross-over’ candidate whose message consistently repudiates the Bush-Rove doctrine of divisiveness and wedge politics.

Some may ask, but what about the endorsements of legendary African American civil rights leaders such as Andy Young and John Lewis for Hilary Clinton? Or Young’s statement that he wants Obama to be president in 2016, implying that he should wait his turn or that he is not ready now. To this, some have reminded Young of the title of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book “Why We Can’t Wait.” Admittedly, their endorsements, and the support of Martin Luther King III for former senator John Edwards may undermine the potential of a cohesive pro-Obama African American vote as the primaries move southward.

Nonetheless, Obama has an impressive albeit an eclectic list of Black endorsements and supporters, ranging from Dr. Joseph Lowery, the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” to prosperity preacher Bishop Eddie Long and entertainment mogul Dallas Austin to former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder to most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus from the South and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. It doesn’t hurt to have Colin Powell’s support and the endorsements of Bill Bradley and John Kerry. And of course Obama also has the backing of that other modern phenomenon, “Oprah.”

Beyond generating enthusiasm and hope at the grassroots level of the Black community, Obama’s buoyancy has also attracted independents, young professionals, women, and moderate Republicans who were once “Reagan Democrats.” If his endorsements translate into voter mobilization on the ground we might witness a record turnout in the southern primaries.

Obama’s Appeal
We reject simplistic notions that suggest African Americans will now vote for Obama because whites affirmed him in Iowa. Some say most African Americans, responding to the challenges of this “defining moment in history,” probably have already planned to vote for Obama or are in the process of considering it. They more than likely see him as an articulate, insightful, “audacious” young man who is well-qualified to be President. As their turn to vote approaches we predict that in growing numbers they will reject accusations that Obama lacks experience, the whispering campaign that electing him would be a “roll of the dice,” or that he is not “black enough.” More likely they will draw immense racial pride from the accomplishments of his candidacy and civic confidence in his judgment, the audacity of his campaign and the clarity of his vision for America.

The poison pill of “no experience” makes little sense to most African Americans who are keenly aware that the current President’s experience base was nothing to write home about. He did not even know there were Black people in Brazil or the name of Pakistan’s notorious coup leader General Musharaf who is now one of his best friends. No less significant is the recent failures of experience by those who voted for the invasion of Iraq, or the disastrous Clinton Omnibus Crime Bill and Welfare Reform which are responsible for thousands of African Americans being locked-up today and disenfranchised; or US policy under Bill Clinton when genocide was being committed in Rwanda. Another perspective would have us believe that all African American voters will vote for Obama simply because he is black. That is not true either. That is what should be remembered about the Al Sharpton campaign.

Barack Obama is doing what few political candidates in the contemporary period have been able to accomplish, that is the broad and sustained participation of young people, especially those 18-29 year olds, in the political and electoral process. This participation has pained those in the establishment of both major parties. Those persons in the 18-29 year old demographic are extremely receptive to Obama’s call for change. The question for African American voters is to determine whether change is what they want, including a move from the brokered politics of select black leaders and the politics represented by the Clintons and the DLC led Democratic Party. The other question is whether identity politics is evil and should be avoided. American politics have always been characterized by identity politics. Major and minor parties in the past have appealed to nationality, race and religion. To now argue that it is somehow unholy and even anti-democratic for blacks to vote for a candidate based upon his or her race is a-historical in light of American politics.

Hope and Faith
Hope is the offspring of faith. Obama’s optimism and confidence in the American people is contagious and can clearly be associated with the best American traditions. For some, his hopefulness might seem a bit naïve, especially given how difficult it has become to achieve progressive social change in any form over the past twenty years. That view is furthered when one considers the current period that’s been so dominated by our growing distrust of politicians, corruption in high places, the lack of accountability by public officials and corporations, an unjust war, record oil prices and murder rates, and a housing and health care crisis. Whatever the case, Obama’s idea of hope and change is in fact something that has been missing from political discourse for some time.

And it is making a difference with people of all backgrounds and races who are tired of being segmented and manipulated into believing that the reason they are having problems is because of their neighbors and not the policy prescriptions that have been adopted which only benefit a very narrow slice of the society. So far, through Obama and to a degree Edwards, we have learned that many Americans agree with the poet Langston Hughes who once wrote, if America is to be we will have to make it be. And that mandates hope. Yet, without the details of substance, hope is empty of meaning. Translated politically, this means that those who agree that choices must be made at this particular moment in history, should be putting forth bold policy proposals and programs that would help realize Obama’s call for change and give muscle to his eloquent audacity of hope.

Far from Over
Now that Barrack Obama is coming south on the 29th of January with a 14 point lead in South Carolina, he is positioned to do extremely well all across the south and in other parts of the country on February 5th and for some Super Tuesday, when 21 states hold their primaries, really will be Super.

The election of a democratic nominee and a new president of the United States are far from over. Super Tuesday will have a lot to say about who the eventual nominee is. Obama may not talk about “grits and gravy” but right now he is “putting it down there where the goats can get it.”

Photo: Senator Barack Obama.