Which Black America will turn out to vote?
By Joel Dreyfuss
How black America feels about itself becomes increasingly important as we approach the crucial midterm elections. Recently, some experts have pointed out that a large African-American turnout could significantly reduce the expected losses among Democrats. This must give the White House slim hopes after being battered for months by a relentless consensus narrative that the loss of the House was inevitable (and maybe even the Senate). The endless drumbeat paused, at least for a moment, when David Bositis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported that blacks are concentrated in more than 20 areas where Democrats and Republicans are engaged in close contests. Most African Americans still strongly support President Obama and worry that the Tea Party movement and the Republicans will slow their pursuit of equality. The challenge for the Obama administration is motivating black voters to come out in numbers large enough to affect the outcome of dozens of races.
The result will depend on whether two black Americas turns out for Obama -- the black America that is most often in the news and the black America that generally stays under the radar.
A few weeks ago, we published The Root 100, our second annual list of emerging young African-American leaders. In a process that took several months, we identified a hundred individuals who are breaking barriers in various ways, including Hollywood producer Will Packer, NBA superstar LeBron James, tech entrepreneur Tristan Walker (at hot startup FourSquare) and futurist rocker Janelle Monáe.
The Root 100 list is grounded in the classic optimism that black people in America are on a continuous path to progress. As we pointed out in our introduction to the list, Barack Obama's 2008 election is less of a surprise when viewed as a part of the natural progression among African Americans since they won full citizenship with the passage of civil rights and voting rights laws in 1964 and 1965. Long before a brash Chicago community organizer set his sights on the White House, we had black Fortune 500 CEOs, generals and admirals in our armed forces (including one in charge of the world's most powerful army -- Colin Powell), thousands of black elected officials, and thousands more professionals infusing corporate America, government service and philanthropic organizations.
But shortly after we published the list, we ran an article commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 1995 Million Man March. Jon Jeter was one of tens of thousands of black men who heeded the call of Black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan to march through the Nation's Capital on a sunny Oct. 16, 1995. Jeter lamented the fact that the optimism of that moment was never translated into a lasting social movement. For many African-Americans, Jeter noted, the last 15 years has been a disaster. The number of blacks in prison is an at all-time high; one in six black men is unemployed; many of the manufacturing jobs that guaranteed a middle-class lifestyle to high school graduates in the East and Midwest have moved to China, India or Vietnam. Black unemployment is nearly double that for the general population, at 16.1 percent in September. Nearly 8 of 10 black children are born to an unmarried mother. One in three black men will at some point be under supervision of the penal system.
The sobering numbers are not surprising; in fact, we hear far more about them than about the successes like the individuals on the Root 100; or about the fact that eight out of ten black Americans are working or that poverty among African-Americans, while it has risen in the last decade, is still at less than half what it was just 40 years ago when we won full legal equality with passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts. Decades ago, as many of the barriers to success were lowered, if not completely abolished, social scientists began warning that black America was bifurcating. The solidarity of oppression and segregation gave way to the complexities of success and failure, based on circumstance, talent, and just plain luck. As Eugene Robinson pointed out on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, while the grandson of a slave could become CEO of Merrill Lynch, the black poor continued to suffer the hollowing out of their communities, the flight of jobs to the suburbs and abroad, an epidemic of nonfunctional schools and a justice system that disproportionately imprisons black men.
A massive black turnout is unlikely in these midterm elections, even if African-Americans feel that they, and the president they have stayed faithful to, are under siege. But if Obama has any hope of retaining enough power to achieve much in the remaining two years of his term, it will depend on how much the two black Americas -- the one that remains optimistic and the other black America - the one that has been devastated by the economic downturn -- are willing to continue to believe in hope and change -- just one more time.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.
| October 28, 2010; 11:36 AM ET
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