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African-American voters

Christina Bergmann, New Orleans / sac
November 5, 2012

Barack Obama's presidency has changed nothing in the relationship between black and white in the US. The president himself seldom broaches the issue of his skin color. But African-Americans still stick by him.

Rotting houses still line the streets of New Orleans seven years after Hurricance Katrina hit
Image: DW/C.Bergmann

New Orleans, Lower 9th Ward. Some seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the streets between Florida and North Clairborne Avenue are still full of cracks and potholes, many houses in ruins, many lots overgrown with weeds.

Even before the big storm hit the city in August 2005, the infrastructure in this part of New Orleans left a lot to be desired, says Wesley Bishop. But it has been frustrating that the clean-up has progressed so slowly, says the 45-year-old, who was born and raised in the 9th Ward.

"It bothers me when I can't point and say the ground's going to break over there on this bank or there's going to be another store right there or this school is going to be right here, because that's what the people are looking at," Bishop said. "They want to see cranes in the sky; they want to see some dirt churning and some real progress actually being made."

But there is only little construction going on in this part of town, says Bishop, who represents this district as a Democrat in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

The majority of the population in New Orleans is African-American: some 60 percent. That is why it took so long for help to arrive as the floods washed over the devastated city in 2005, the saying goes. According to Bishop, though, New Orleans has received more reconstruction aid under President Obama than it did under his predecessor George W. Bush.

An empty building and lot in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward
There is still no supermarket, no hospital, no bank in the Lower 9th Ward of New OrleansImage: DW/C.Bergmann

Racism on the rise

Slavery was officially abolished and prohibited in the United States in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Shortly thereafter, African-Americans were granted the right to vote. But it took a further 100 years, until the Voting Rights Act in 1965 ensured that all African-Americans could in fact execute their right to vote.

However, living standards of blacks and whites are still unequal. The unemployment rate among African-Americans is nearly double that of whites: 13.4 percent versus seven percent. African-Americans make up for 13 percent of the US population, but nearly half of the country's inmates in prison. A black president has not been able to change the fact that 27.4 percent of African-Americans live under the poverty line as opposed to 9.9 percent of whites.

According to a recent survey, prejudices against African-Americans have even risen slightly in the past four years since Obama took office. Some 51 percent of Americans foster negative attitudes toward blacks, compared to 48 percent four years ago. So has the election of a president with African-American roots, whose father came from Kenya, changed nothing for the country's blacks?

"What we've learned is that the election of one person would not change the day-to-day circumstances of our lives," says Tony Recasner, CEO of the non-profit advocacy organization Agenda for Children. "In a sense, it didn't change our economic status and didn't change our social status."

Dr. Tony Recasner, CEO of "Agenda for Children" in New Orleans
Recasner said he understands Obama's predicamentImage: DW/C.Bergmann

But Recasner and many other blacks in New Orleans said that Obama's election had given African-Americans an enormous boost in self-confidence.

Understanding for the President

Is Recasner nonetheless disappointed by the president, because he so seldom addresses the particular problems African-Americans face? No, he says. Obama first and foremost had to take care of the entire nation, pointing out the difficult economic situation the president inherited from his predecessor and which has dominated his term in office.

"If you frame it in the sense of being disappointed, he could be equally as disappointed in us as we are sometimes collectively at what hasn't happened as a result of him being president," Recasner said.

When Obama turns to African-Americans directly, which rarely occurs, he sings the same tune. In a speech last year, he called on blacks to stop complaining and roll up their sleeves to tackle their problems.

"Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes," he said in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. "Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do." But no special initiatives or laws have been introduced during his term in office.

Many houses are in ruins, many lots overgrown with weeds in the Lower 9th Ward
Seven years have passed since Katrina hit and little has improved in the Lower 9th WardImage: DW/C.Bergmann

Obama's true colors

"We know that racism continues to exist," says Cathy Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. She is angry about the leniency toward Obama and says blacks should haul him over the coals more often.

"People feel somewhat protective of him, so there's a real hesitancy to make a public issue about his failings," Cohen said. The president is very aware of this fact, she adds.

Andre Perry, the Associate Director for Educational Initiatives at Loyola University New Orleans, says the time had come for President Obama to deal with the issue of racism much more actively.

"At some point you have got to stand up - and I want members of the Republican Party to stand up as well because the Republican Party is in a peculiar spot," Perry says. "They allow a very racist, jaded community in their party and they don't check them. But what they don't understand is that there are many people who would actually be Republican and vote for the Republican Party if it weren't for this racist, sexist element that Republicans need to rid themselves of."

Especially the Tea Party's slogan "I want my country back" has African-Americans asking who took it away in the first place. Lloyd Harsch, a Louisiana Republican delegate and professor of church history at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, says race is not the issue.

"The people in the Tea Party whom I know of by and large are not racist," Harsch says. "Their concerns are on issues. They disagree strongly with President Obama's issues but they could care less were he African-American or Caucasian. They would have the same reaction."

President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Obama says he represents the entire country, not just core votersImage: AP

President of all Americans

Despite the many disappointments, most African-Americans are sticking by their president. The latest surveys show that support for Obama is unbroken among this group at over 90 percent. Among white voters, however, he is losing ground. In 2008, he enjoyed approval rates of 43 percent among whites across the country, today it is just 37 percent. But he needs white votes to be re-elected. Ted Frantz, a history professor from the University of Indianapolis, says Obama has to show he represents the entire country.

"As the first African-American president, you're going to go out of your way to demonstrate how similar you are to other presidents when you approach the entirety of the American people and you're not going to make special inroads just to your own ethnic group," Frantz said. The first Catholic president John F. Kennedy, for example, had made a conscious decision not to specifically consider Catholics in his policies.

African-Americans in New Orleans hope that maybe Obama will make a greater effort to address the inequality between blacks and whites during his second term in office. They are trying to be patient.

For the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, the long waiting period may be over soon and things are supposed to move forward. Before Christmas, construction on a large supermarket is scheduled to begin which will create 700 jobs. There is hope that further good news will follow.