Barack Obama's campaign has caught fire in communities all over the country. His call for change is resonating with a Democratic electorate fed up with the lies, distortions, corruption, and general crookedness of the Bush administration. Obama's support is running especially hot in much of the black community, which has rewarded him with overwhelming support. While I see this as a natural occurrence -- everyone wants to see "one of their own" in powerful positions -- it puts a new spin on an old question for African American voters: What should black voters expect from a black president? What issues should black America expect President Obama to address? Should he be expected to address not just universal issues, but also those of unique importance to black America? After all, what's the point of having a black president if he doesn't deal with uniquely black issues? I'm not suggesting that he should put black issues above everything else if he becomes president; that would certainly make him a one-termer. However, he can't win the presidency on the back of black voters, then do nothing on black issues. Can he?
Of course, there are issues that are of universal interest. The Iraq War, taxes, the federal budget deficit, and jobs, among other issues, have universal appeal. But, there also are issues that are of unique interest to various sectors of the electorate. Latinos have a particular interest in U.S. immigration policy. Jews have a unique interest U.S. policy toward Israel. Christian fundamentalists focus on abortion and faith policy. African Americans have issues, too, that particularly resonate in black communities all over the country.
Forty-six percent of the nearly two million people now incarcerated in the U.S. are black, despite the fact that African Americans comprise 13 percent of the populace (not to mention the millions of blacks on parole or probation). There are only two explanations for this reality: either African Americans are genetically predisposed to commit crime or there are systemic societal characteristics that make it more likely than not that African Americans will be sentenced to prison compared to other Americans. Families, neighborhoods, and large swaths of the black community have been destabilized through this systemic warehousing of African Americans. And, oh, by the way, black women comprise the fastest growing segment of American prisoners. What would a President Obama do to fix this disparity? Will he expend any of his newly gotten political capital to descend upon states with particularly egregious records in this regard and push them toward fairness or will he simply punt, arguing that this is not a federal issue?
There are incredible household wealth disparities that exist between whites and blacks. Median white household wealth is roughly 10 times that of African American households. These gains have been and will continue to be under siege as conservatives seek to shrink the opportunity base for minorities while preserving the status quo for their own children. Black college enrollment is beginning to shrink in part because of increasing costs and decreasing amounts of available federal student loans. What will a President Obama do to preserve access to higher education and greater black household income?
I know that this seems to be a lot to put on the plate for one president, particularly the first black president. Indeed, some will argue that these are issues outside the scope of what a president can reasonably be expected to address. I'm also not expecting him to run his mouth in Idaho, Iowa, or New Hampshire about what he will do for black people. But is it too much to ask of him to lay out his plans in places like South Carolina or Georgia?
You better believe that other groups are making plain what they expect him to do for them once he gets in office, so it's only fair for black people to get in the game too. In fact, you better get in line now if you have any expectations for him in this regard. People are falling all over him to do this or that and my guess is that criminal justice, housing, healthcare, and education issues that pertain to black people aren't high on their lists. Therefore, we must step up and make sure he knows what he wants. Sadly, my fear is that many black voters are so desperate for a black president that they will take one without asking him to do anything about the unique issues that plague black communities around the country.
There's something perverse in this kid glove's treatment: It's possible that a black president could win the White House but do even less for black America than a white president and get away with it because African American voters don't want to ask their first black president for anything and won't hold him accountable if they did. Here's hoping that Obama's march to the White House will include something for black America. After all, it may turn out that black voters in South Carolina made it possible for him to win the nomination. Shouldn't they get something for their trouble other than the pride in seeing the first black president in their lifetimes?
Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the book, Republicans and the Black Vote; an updated, paperback edition will be published in April 2008. A registered Independent, he blogs at: www.MichaelFauntroy.com. Check me out when you can. Audio and video awaits your perusal.