When the president said, “Can you say that a little louder, Candy!” after moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney during a crucial moment in their second debate, sending the audience into laughter, I heard black barbershop dozens signifying. Or asphalt basketball court trash talking. Obama has not been shy about bringing black cultural signifiers with him onto the national stage — from fist bumping his wife in the 2008 campaign to refusing change from a fast food cashier by saying “Nah we straight.” An insightful new book, Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. by professors H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, catalogs Obama’s particular linguistic manner and the ease with which he verbally communicates blackness. It is these moments that begin to explain why the question of whether blacks vote for Obama just because he’s black is so dumb.
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The question has become an Internet meme over the last week, fueled mostly by people like author Kevin Jackson, author of The Big Black Lie, who told Fox News, “Racists that they are, [blacks] voted for [Obama] because he’s black, not because he’s qualified.” Conservative author Ron Christie echoed him saying blacks voted for Obama because of “straitjacket solidarity.”
This is mostly conservatives complaining about why they can’t get a serious look from black Americans and break up the demographic firewall that Obama has because of overwhelming support from blacks and Latinos. It would be too psychologically difficult to blame their decades old problem with black and brown voters on an ideology that is anti-affirmative action, anti-choice, anti-the social safety net, pro-voter ID, pro-tax breaks for the wealthy, pro demonizing of welfare and accepting of birtherism. A party that engages in what many have called the Southern Strategy 2.0, which means trying to attract poor whites through enraging them via coded racist appeals like the “Obama is removing the work requirement from welfare” claim” that was widely debunked but still remained at the heart of a Romney ad.
But instead of looking at the Republican ideology and realizing that it is hostile to blacks, they call blacks racist for their supposedly thoughtless skin-color-based support of Obama. An August poll showed Obama leading Romney among blacks 94% to 0%, but this is hardly an historical outlier. Al Gore won 90% of the black vote in 2000 and John Kerry won 88% in 2004. Obama won 95% in 2008.
Instead, the idea that blacks support Obama just because he’s black is itself racist because it suggests a lack of political sophistication and brain power, as if blacks would vote for anyone who shares their skin color, even though most blacks didn’t support Herman Cain, Allen West, Alan Keyes and don’t respect Clarence Thomas. And the question ignores the nuances of reality. Yes Obama’s blackness is part of why many blacks support him. Another reason is Obama’s policies: saving Detroit, supporting universal health care, and fighting to protect the social safety net and a woman’s right to choose will win lots of black votes. But if we like a candidate because we like him personally, i.e., feel a kinship with him because of a feeling of shared culture, and because we like his policies, well, that seems awfully like the calculus many voters use in their decision of who to support.
Besides, too much has been written about the spiritual uplift inherent in Obama’s success to take seriously the idea that blacks voting for a black man is a vapid choice, rather than a soul-affirming one. Blacks voting for Obama are also voting to redefine blackness in the American collective mind via the radical act of having a brilliant black man be the leader of the country. There’s a love of self in that vote, and his election in turn impacted black national self-esteem, the way Kennedy’s victory helped Irish-Catholics feel fully American.
In order to think blacks reflexively support Obama because of race you have to ignore so much evidence. You have to close your eyes to his black critics from the brilliant Cornel West to Michael Jones, the undecided voter at the debate who asked why he should vote for him, to the clueless Stacey Dash. You also have to believe that whites never take race into account which would suggest that the Bradley Effect doesn’t exist and demand you dismiss a recent Esquire Magazine/Yahoo poll in which 26% of respondents said they personally know someone who’s not voting for Obama simply because he’s black. And you have to believe that race is merely a skin color and not something that becomes a deep shaper of your life, a significant part of your soul, such that the revolutionary success of a black person on the nation’s most important stage is critical to your life and worthy of support, if he’s also got policies you like.