As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders turn to South Carolina, both will be hoping to win over African-Americans, who account for about half of those who will vote in the state’s primary next month. Currently, Clinton has a lead with that group, besting her rival 69 percent to 27 percent. She will presumably campaign, as she has done elsewhere, on the promise of four more years of President Obama’s policies. Will that be enough? Maybe not.
It’s early yet, and many potential voters are still getting to know Sanders and his message of income inequality, healthcare for all, and other social reforms. Also, the most recent referendum on the Obama presidency was in 2014, during which black turnout plummeted, even accounting for the usual slump in non-presidential contests, ten percent of African Americans defected to Republicans. In that election, Democrats lost every state in which Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned. At the time, a poll showed that only 53 percent of African-Americans held a “very favorable” view of Clinton.
The lesson is that the high black turnout and solid support for the Democrat ticket in 2008 and 2012 was largely because of Barack Obama. That enthusiasm may have waned, since many African-Americans feel Obama has failed the black community. Hillary’s promise of allegiance to the president may not carry much weight.
Unemployment among black men is nearly 9 percent today, more than twice the rate for whites. In January 2009, the month Obama took office, the unemployment rate for white men was 8.3 percent and for blacks 15.8 percent; by this one measure, the divide between white and black employment has gotten worse under President Obama.
The disparity between black and white worker incomes has widened since 2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the third quarter of last year median weekly pay for black men was $652, compared to $919 for white males, a difference of 41 percent. In the final quarter of 2008, before Obama took office, that difference was 35 percent.
African Americans have made almost no progress in educational achievement over the past eight years, with only 11 percent meeting three benchmarks on ACT tests of high school achievement, compared to 49 percent of whites. This does not stir our president, who gave up efforts at school reform when alerted by the teachers’ unions that he might lose their endorsement in 2012.
Blacks are right to feel slighted. Obama could have done more to move the needle on African American earnings and achievement, but at some risk. Controversial news anchor Don Lemon landed in hot water in 2013 when he suggested that blacks might improve their lot by finishing school and stemming out-of-wedlock births – riffing on a Talking Points broadcast by Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly.
Lemon said, “Stop telling kids they're acting white because they go to school or they speak proper English. A high school dropout makes on average $19,000 a year, a high school graduate makes $28,000 a year, a college graduate makes $51,000 a year.” On marriage, he was equally forthright: “More than 72 percent of children in the African American community are born out of wedlock. That means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train right to prison and the cycle continues.”
The furor over Lemon’s pitch was sadly predictable. A writer on the black website Clutch dismissed Lemon’s nostrums, arguing he was ignoring “the country’s history of institutional racism and systematic oppression.” The author resists Lemon’s “respectability politics play [which] sends a dangerous message that the blame for oppression lies with the oppressed. He puts the onus on us to change to ‘earn’ basic rights and privileges that are extended to other races, no matter their flaws.” In other words, why even try?
In a Fathers’ Day speech in 2008, then Senator Obama sailed into this conversation, telling a packed black church in Chicago, “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.” The candidate observed, “More than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” a number that he claimed had doubled in his lifetime. On education, he told the applauding congregation, “Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation; you’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.” In an earlier speech in 2008, Obama had also pushed family responsibilities, lecturing them for giving “cold Popeyes” to their kids for breakfast.
He could have pushed that theme more consistently, but he desperately needed blacks to turn out for him in 2012 as they did in 2008, and this line of persuasion isn’t too popular. In 2008, Obama received 96 percent of the black vote; in 2012, it dipped to 93 percent. It could have gone lower.
Kevin Johnson, the senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church and a long-time Obama supporter, wrote a scathing criticism of the president in 2013, titled “A president for everyone, except Black people.” In his piece, he noted that Obama had appointed fewer blacks in his cabinet than Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, and that “African-Americans are in a worse position than they were before he became president.” He also decried “the president’s poor record in catapulting an economic and empowerment agenda for the African-American community…” and wondered why blacks were still supporting the president.
Obama did revisit the theme of taking responsibility in 2013, telling graduates of Morehouse College, there is "no time for excuses" for African-American men. But, he has also voiced sympathy with those who see racism as the biggest threat to blacks. Obama has found, according to black firebrand Cornel West, the middle ground. He says, “He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground…. The middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision.” This moderation, frustrating to both those advocating reforms in the black community and in society, prompts Johnson to note in his op-ed, “Obama is more of an historical leader than he is a transformational leader for the African-American community.” Obama wasted his opportunity to boost the fortunes of blacks.