Could an Obama Win Backfire on Blacks?


Abigail Thernstrom, the conservative commentator on race in the U.S., once called me a member of the "doom and gloom" contingent among black political scholars. So, that probably makes me overqualified to make this assertion, but here goes. An Obama presidency could seriously backfire on African Americans.

It is true that should Barack Obama become president, the symbolic impact on race relations in the United States would be positive, and that it would produce a critical and immediate positive impact on America's image in the eyes of the world. Still, it is also true that the potential dangers of an Obama presidency are real and severe.


First, consider foreign affairs: Obama himself has made it clear that he will not immediately bring the troops home from Iraq. He would start withdrawing early, he claims, but at no greater rate than a brigade or two a month. Obama's policy team is essentially run by centrists. Consequently, there is every reason to believe that some of Obama's early foreign policy "gaffes" (such as the statement about his willingness to ignore Pakistan's sovereignty and follow Bush's doctrine of unilateral intervention in the name of the "War Against Terror") were not mistakes at all but (lead) trial balloons launched by the more conservative wing of his foreign policy team which includes former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, Dennis Ross, and others.

This is a wing dedicated to prosecuting the war on terror and linking such policy to current failed American initiatives that have led to continued violence in the Middle East, belligerence toward Iran, and a lack of progress toward a two state solution in the Middle East that will bring peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.

So while Obama might broker foreign policy gains in other areas, the chances that he would end the war during his tenure seem slim. Nearly as detrimental, his decidedly conventional Middle East policy is likely to squander whatever initial goodwill his election might generate in the region.

There are troubling signs on the domestic front, as well. It is reasonable to expect that the black middle class would benefit greatly from an Obama presidency, but the black poor and other economically marginalized groups will likely lose even more ground in their struggle to climb out of poverty. Unlike former president Clinton, who benefited from a strong economy during his administration, Obama will inherit a troubled economy much like the one inherited by former Detroit mayor Coleman Young, who took office during a period in which rust-belt cities were under severe economic siege.

While the threat of recession grows everyday (and many astute observers consider it very possible that the nation has already slipped into recession), inflation has also begun to rear its ugly head. With the head of the Federal Reserve forecasting at least "some" bank failures in the period ahead ( "only small" banks), and crude oil being sold at record prices per barrel (leading to forecasts of $4.00 per gallon of gasoline prices for the American consumer), it is not surprising the stock market and the dollar are in freefall.

Obama has pursued economic policies that, on occasion, have been mildly progressive, but he seems unlikely to truly challenge the neoliberal economic and political regime that has served to grossly inflate the distance between the haves and have- nots, both at home in the U.S. and around the globe.


Attempts to pioneer progressive economic policies will also be stifled by Obama's stated intention to forge a bipartisan government. Under this scenario, there will be Republicans, or Republican wannabes like Joe Lieberman, in the cabinet. And Congress, even if there is a Democratic majority in both houses, is likely to apply rightward pressure on an Obama administration, given that many of the current first term Democrats, the ones that give the Democrats their slim majorities in both houses, are from red states.

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.