In last Tuesday’s California primary Barack Obama captured a whopping 86 percent of the black vote, signifying a sea change in support among blacks once wary of his platform and electability.
As the dogfight for the Democratic nomination wears on, many progressive people of color recently swayed to the Obama camp continue to be conflicted about his social justice credentials. Although Obama is fond of invoking his experience as an organizer on Chicago’s South Side, his multicultural message has left some of his most ambivalent supporters wondering how this background will be reflected in his policy initiatives.
Both Obama’s South Carolina primary victory speech and his Super Tuesday oratory issued a rousing call for tolerance to the nation, building on the same “colorblind” rhetoric that has broadened his appeal among whites and captured the imagination of adoring throngs from the hinterlands to urban America.
While his evocation of workplace inequities and economic disenfranchisement among the working poor and middle class of the South elicited wild cheers from his diverse primary night crowds, his omission of the very specific struggles of workers of color was troubling. Throughout the South Carolina speech, Obama declared that he “did not see color” when he went campaigning for votes among outsourced factory workers down South. He consistently emphasized the universality of the plight of American workers affected by the dysfunctional trade and industrial policies that have virtually wiped out New Deal era defined benefit plans and stable retirements for many working Americans.
Despite the inspirational lilt of his oratory, Obama’s paean to the shared pain of Bush era downsizing rings false for workers of color, who have been the most severely impacted by the GOP’s anti-family, anti-worker policies, its mega defense spending and corporate welfare whoring. Contrary to Obama’s color doesn’t matter mantra, urban and rural poverty among African Americans is worse now than during the Jim Crow era. Intractable poverty among African Americans means that black children are even more likely to go to crowded under-resourced schools in segregated communities with underqualified teachers than are children of any other racial group. Despite national gains in college-going and graduation among black women, the gender wage gap for black women is a major barrier to real social mobility for black families, black male unemployment is the highest in the nation and urban black families saddled with predatory variable loans are among the hardest hit casualties of the mortgage crisis.
Obama’s calculated sidestep of these disparities poses a quandary for his most ardent progressive supporters, who have grudgingly overlooked these shortcomings to help stem the tide of the Clinton juggernaut. The “we are the world” seductions of his campaign raise the concern that if elected he might seek to placate the most centrist/conservative factions of the Democratic Party and the GOP by brokering compromise on the domestic social welfare issues that African Americans and other people of color value most.