Could an Obama Win Backfire on Blacks?

The Potential Pitfalls of an Obama Presidency

One policy domain where this pressure to govern from the right will have decisive negative consequences is in the area of healthcare. A President Obama is unlikely to spend much political capital to promote universal and affordable healthcare in the face of opposition from the healthcare industry, the AMA, pharmaceutical industry, and conservative and “centrist” politicians in and outside of his governing coalition. A severely stressed economic environment makes it more likely that an Obama administration healthcare initiative will be fatally crippled and compromised.

From all indications, the left of Obama’s strong center-left coalition is likely to be marginalized and frozen out of meaningful input into the decision-making process of the new administration. Already we see some serious cracks in the coalition. Black gay and lesbians, among others, continue to decry the lack of concern in the black community and American society more generally for the victims of deadly hate crimes aimed at gays and lesbians as documented on this site in Kai Wright’s powerful article on anti-gay deadly violence.

Therefore, it is not surprising that some in the gay community, including the black gay and lesbian community are defecting from the Obama campaign after he conspicuously included the Grammy award winning gospel singer the Reverend Donnie McClurkin as part of his campaign in the South Carolina primary. Reverend McClurkin has argued that part of his calling is to “fight the curse of homosexuality.” Obama has denounced McClurkin’s homophobia, but for many activists, Obama has not satisfactorily explained the reverend’s role in the campaign.

The cross-class black united front that has been a mainstay of black politics since the second half of the 19th century could shatter beyond recognition. The black middle class, which would likely gain ground during an Obama presidency, may have little incentive under Obama’s leadership to close the gap in life chances between the rich and the poor. Worse, many whites’ current belief that racial equality has been achieved for blacks, or will soon be, would be greatly reinforced, making it more difficult than it is today to make claims about black injustice

Is this grim set of outcomes inevitable? No. At least I hope not. The best defense against this scenario playing out is to learn lessons from Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. In those campaigns too, enormous grassroots support from the black community combined with the efforts of progressives and their organizations. But those organizations were not strong enough to wield long-lasting influence. To hold Obama accountable, his supporting organizations must be independent enough to continue their work once the campaign is over and be strong enough to criticize him when he makes bad decisions.

Such an independent movement would continue to fight for an anti-imperialist foreign policy. Such a movement would continue to fight for social justice and equal treatment for all disadvantaged groups. Such a movement would continue to talk about how, in this capitalist society, having a popular black president and a growing and successful black middle class does not take race off the table, but simply means that our quest for racial justice needs to be even more intensely focused on those who remain in economically ravaged communities.

In other words, our best hope for a successful Obama presidency lies not in a President Obama, but for us to realize that the hardest work begins the day after the election, as we seek to channel the fervor of the campaign into a real movement for social justice.

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.