Robert C. Smith is professor of political science at San Francisco State University. He is author or coauthor of more than 40 articles and essays and nine books including "Race, Class and Culture: A Study in Afro-American Mass Opinion." His newest book, "John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance," is due out later this year. Prof. Smith spoke with New America Media’s Zaineb Mohammed about what he sees as the key issues for black voters in this year’s upcoming elections.
What is the key wedge issue for black voters in California in 2012?
I think the real wedge issue in the election will be Obama himself. This campaign will be more explicitly racialized than the last one.
In spite of the economic difficulties that blacks face – an unemployment rate almost twice the norm - blacks nevertheless feel better about the economy than whites. This is simply racial solidarity. There is still a great deal of support for Obama in the African American community. Even people who are critical, in the end, say he’s doing the best he can.
If the Republicans racialize the campaign, that will lead blacks to rally around Obama in a way that is divisive. The black community is predisposed to see harsh attacks on Obama in a racial way, to view them as racial attacks as opposed to ideological. I suspect there will be some subtle and not so subtle racial attacks on Obama.
Why would this election cycle be more racially rancorous than the previous one in 2008?
Well [Senator John] McCain, for reasons I am still not sure of, decided not to racialize the campaign. Governor Palin and a number of conservative pundits urged him to use Reverend Jeremiah Wright to draw a racial marker and he declined to do so.
It’s very clear from what we’ve seen thus far in the Republican primary debates that that’s not going to hold this time. Gingrich, for example, made the remark about the food stamp president. That’s a very well-known racial trope to stress that black people don’t want to work. Romney’s strategists will look at that and will copy it.
Republicans and conservatives are so desperate to defeat Obama that they’re not going to take anything off the table. They’re desperate to defeat him, not because he’s black, but because they resent his ideology, they think he’s so far to the left. They’ll use the notion that he’s radical, socialist, somehow un-American, to divide the country.
What about immigration? Where do black voters stand on that issue?
Immigration is going to be a very tricky issue. African Americans have generally been ambivalent on that. The ambivalence will tend to wither away as black voters see that the voices attacking that minority group [Latinos] are the same voices that would attack them.
The black leadership will become very much engaged – people who are ambivalent about it will be asked by their leaders to see this as a part of a larger attack on minority groups, not just Latinos.
What about on the national stage? Where are black-Latino relations headed?
California is ground zero for the Black-Latino conflict. In the past there has been much less support for this idea of a pathway for citizenship among blacks. Blacks are still not as against that as anglos, but nevertheless there’s been ambivalence.
But Black and Latino leaders will come together and try to mobilize a black and brown coalition around that issue in order to re-elect Obama.
Black leaders are aware that the worst thing that can happen for their group is to have divisive conflict with Latinos. They know that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population and their power is likely to continue to increase and black power is likely to diminish relative to that so they see that it doesn’t make sense not to have a coalition with it. They are driven by the long-term strategic sense of what is in the African American community’s interests, and also the wish to re-elect Obama.
In order to have any kind of progressive coalition there has to be unity between blacks and browns. California, especially southern California is ground zero. If it works here in a viable way, then that probably means it would work most other places.
What are the criticisms of Obama coming out of the African American community?
Among black intellectuals, it’s about the economics, particularly joblessness - the fact that in this depression, the President has acted as if high unemployment among blacks does not exist. He talks about the middle class, but rarely mentions poor people and certainly never mentions the racialization of poverty in the United States.
I hear more criticism from ordinary black people that I talk to about his foreign policy, particularly about Libya and his intervention there. The view is that he has not done enough to disengage from the wars.
Has Obama purposefully avoided issues like the racialization of poverty?
He has for sure. I just finished a book in which I compare President Kennedy and President Obama as the first ethnic presidents. Both practice the politics of ethnic avoidance. The first person of any ethnic group who wins the presidency has to go out of his way to demonstrate to the majority that he will not show any kind of favoritism toward his particular group. Kennedy bent over backwards not to be associated with the Catholics. Obama has done that, and as in the case with Kennedy, it is unfortunate.
But if Obama did what his black critics want him to do, it would effectively destroy his presidency. If he started speaking forcefully about racialized poverty, there would be a groundswell of opposition from the right wing press and even from the Democratic Party. That’s the trade off; in order to have a symbol of one of your own in the presidency you can’t get more of the substance.
Would African Americans have been better off with a different president?
I think that Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, would have been in a better position to address the problem of racialized poverty than Obama. She could not have been accused of favoritism, blacks could have brought more pressure on her than “one of their own.”
Obama is confident that once we get into the heat of a campaign the blacks will rally around him in the same way, if not more so than in 2008.
The value of the Obama presidency is almost wholly symbolism, it’s an important symbol, but nothing substantive has come out of his presidency to address any of the problems that black people face.
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