Photo: JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES
“And although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a black President”- Tupac Shakur, from Changes
Sharing the sentiments of most blue folks living in red states, the results of the recent midterm elections felt like a body blow to progressive ideals. This is true especially here in Georgia, a state that more than a few had predicted to go purple this year. In the days following the political blood bath, pundits, analysts, and political scientists have been quick to offer their explanations and synopses of what happened. After all the smoke cleared and every possible speculation had been made, two things became very clear about the midterm election: (1) Democrats were unable to turn out the Obama electorate and (2) Democrats shed white voters in huge numbers. The remaining question is “why?” Many experts cite the sputtering economy as the culprit. Others blame President Obama’s cool demeanor and his alleged lack of interest in truly engaging House and Senate Republicans. Very few are willing to even consider the role that the President’s race might have played in the results for fear of being labeled racist or being accused of playing the race card. So I’ll take one for the team and consider the possibility that Obama’s blackness has some influence in our politics and how we vote (or don’t vote).
Pac’s Prophetic Eye
The late nineties was a remarkable time to enter adulthood, especially for poor African-American youth. We survived the LA riots and the stark, racially divisive reaction to the infamous O.J. Simpson verdict. For the generation that came of age during the Crack Era, race still mattered. While many of us were inspired by our predecessors who made their mark during the Civil Rights Movement, we were equally dismayed by the sense of abandonment that many of us experienced as the result of the harsh judgment levied upon us by those same older warriors.
Enter Tupac Shakur, the voice of a restless and rambling generation. Like so many generational icons before him, Shakur poignantly and poetically captured the angst and frustration of his comrades. He did so in the song Changes, quoted at the beginning of this piece. Originally penned in 1992, the late rapper not only cautioned us about the implications of electing a Black president, he also railed against police brutality and systemic poverty. Reminiscent of the great Marvin Gaye, many years after his death, Tupac’s words are as relevant now as they were in 1992.
It Did Seem Heaven Sent
Fast forward to 2008. It was one of those rare events in a lifetime where you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when it happened. I was in Savannah, Georgia enjoying my own boss’s victory party when the polls in California finally closed. Then they called it. Amazingly, the United States had elected our first African-American president. It was a historic moment indeed.
Because I worked in politics, I wasn’t immediately swept into the euphoric belief that having a Black president signaled the end of all racism. But I must admit that it did feel good to be a part of history and to imagine, for a moment, that we were just inches away from realizing Dr. King’s dream. That honeymoon ended before it ever began. Straight away, Republican operatives sprang into action with their ultimate goal to make President Obama a one-term president. Of course, that plan didn’t work. The Obama electorate, generally made up of young people, single females, and minorities, turned out again in 2012 to re-elect Barack Obama. For many folks, this solidified the idea that minorities were truly electable to the highest office in the land. And all is well with the world…
“I voted for Barack Obama twice and still got tear gassed”
This was the response of a Ferguson, Missouri protester when he was asked to comment on the effectiveness of political action during a town hall meeting that was held nearly a month after the shooting death of Michael Brown. The protester was young and African-American and his sentiments were quite indicative of the frustrations of a good number of Obama voters.
The election of Obama was critically miscalculated by two specific theories. The first theory, often adopted by Obama supporters, states that some palpable improvement would be experienced in African-American and minority communities as a direct result of having an African-American president. The second theory states that the mere election (and re-election) of a Black president signifies the end of racism and the necessity for programs and laws designed to protect minorities from discrimination. The problem with the first theory is that it totally misunderstands the role and power of the president. No president prior to Obama (except for possibly Abraham Lincoln) or after him will ever have the power to change people’s lives overnight. It’s not how our democracy works. Your vote is always more effective the closer it is to home. So while your vote for Obama may not have kept you from getting tear gassed, your vote for your council member or police chief had more potential to make the difference. The second theory, often adopted by Obama opponents, is wilder than the first. It would have us believe that one election can overturn centuries of systematic discrimination and degradation. It’s more than just a stretch; it’s insane.
On November 4, 2014 these two theories collided with billions of campaign dollars, a slowly recovering economy, a fear-driven conservative base, and an uninspired liberal base. The result was a Republican takeover at nearly all levels of government. At some point, Barack Obama ceased being a politician and became a superhero in the eyes of many. He was expected to do the impossible. After six years in office, some have discovered what many of us knew all along—at the end of the day, the President (no matter who he or she may be) is just a mere mortal like the rest of us. This left a lot of people despondent and disappointed, so they just weren’t motivated to vote. Brother Shakur may have been on to something.