In recent months, Democrats have pulled a respectable amount of political capital to energize the African American vote, their most reliable voting bloc to date. At crunch time, mere weeks before Election Day, the reserves are called in to activate an almost ancient network of Black politicos and party activists to somehow hold the line, to prevent this reported "tsunami" of tea partiers converging on the polls en masse. The most effective weapon they have at this point is the President, as the party will attempt to strike pure emotional chords with Black voters who still shine pride on the fact one of "us" is in the White House.
An awful bit of risk is involved in the calculation: how do you balance Black voter enthusiasm or support for President Barack Obama against his low approval ratings in many national polls? While he might still be popular amongst his intensely loyal Black voting base, his standing among other groups is a bit shaky at the moment.
More interesting is that Democrats are utilizing a Presidential dog-and-pony show on the road to entice Black voters through pure cultural connection. And there is greater emphasis placed on hot-button rhetoric rather than the meat of effective policy, a basket weave of sound-biting missives engineered for knee-jerk "get-out-the-vote" efforts, and that's it.
In a bizarre statement for even a White gubernatorial incumbent running in a state with a heavy African American presence, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley spit peculiar rhymes at former Gov.-turned-challenger Bob Ehrlich (R-MD) about "coded language about kids that aren't succeeding." Days after an Obama rally at predominantly Black Bowie State University in Maryland, here's O'Malley sounding much "Blacker" during the first televised gubernatorial debate: "I'm tired of people putting down the achievements of poor children and children of color." For sure, O'Malley got props from Maryland's substantial contingent of Black voters, who count for about 30% of the state's registration rolls.
Not to say he's wrong, but it strikes an interesting tone as Democrats find creative ways to push Black voters to the polls during an "off" election year - one where they aren't voting for a Black President. On some range, it's rather unfortunate that this is what it takes. That the messaging should be that easy - or that lacking. But, that's politics.
A weighty slogan thrown around as of late - from the President's phone-in at Michael Baisden Show to large signs pitched on highway grass - is the call to have Obama's back. According to Democratic National Committee Chair and former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine: "We need to have the President's back." In turn, Baisden replied: "Don't worry, Mr. President, we've got your back." A large, random salutation to the President only moments away from BSU on a busy Maryland road: "We've got your back." Using O'Malley parlance, the coding is obvious, an attempt to draw in Black support through original urban verb. In Kaine's case, he desperately needs midterm wins to keep his legacy and any future job prospects intact.
While it elucidates the heavy, somewhat spiritual and paperless contract between Black folks and their first Black President, there is something annoyingly condescending in that statement. Will that work?
Conspicuously absent from the discussion is the extent to which the President has "our" back. It's a fair question as tensions have lingered for some time between Obama's White House and African American organizations, elected officials and advocates over the perception that there is not much of a "Black" or "urban" agenda. For sure, that's an unfair expectation to place on the President of the United States. But, it's reasonable to assume the creation or development of certain policies whereby a critical component offers more direct focus on Black conditions. Hence, it's interesting that Black voters must "have the President's back," yet there is no call for or appearance of reciprocity in that statement - how does the President, or Democrats in general, have "our" collective back?
On real, one can make the argument that he has. Looking at the magnitude of the economic crisis, this particular recession could have been much worse, hence increasing Black unemployment in unimaginable ways. And, there is that detail called health reform, where at least - by multiple measures - those who did not have health coverage (a disproportionate number being African American) can expect to have a degree of some under the new regime - even as we work out the details. And while previous Administrations paid lip service to the cause of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), this President has kicked off a renewed, centralized focus ensuring they receive a lion's share of Pell grant funding, while parity is introduced in federal research and development grants to HBCUs. Clearly, the approach is holistic - although "Black" is rarely mentioned, there is a sense of shifting priorities with respect to communities long ignored or issues - such as predatory lending - now suddenly addressed in unprecedented Presidential fashion. It will just take time.
Still, the question above is valid with near 20% official Black unemployment and record foreclosures hitting Black families - with a quarter of the Black middle class now gone. Questions persist over what happened to that conversation. During the recent, joint MTV/BET/CMT youth town hall, there was an undeniable richness of a Black Howard University professor grilling the President about "don't ask, don't tell" and not about what he plans to do to restore that 25 percent of the Black middle-class that disappeared during this recession - the same demographic that helps an HBCU like Howard exist. Just saying ... the priorities seem a bit off.
Are Black voters being asked to consider that? Perhaps, in the midst of this critical election, some of us acknowledge the progress, albeit slow, but need the discourse. It's not to say reciprocity has not taken place, but it would be nice to know since we're being asked to vote for "you" - despite the fact it's not 2012, yet.
(originally appeared in Politic365.com)