Fear of a Black Polity

Once the general election kicked into gear, and it was clear that Barack Obama would have the overwhelming support of African American voters, a meme picked up among some white voters. “They’re only voting for him because he’s black.” This, of course, was at odds with the facts. Black voters were initially ambivalent toward the then-Senator, and only embraced him after the Iowa and South Carolina primaries. Moreover, by that point, African Americans had been loyal Democratic voters for four decades; their positive feelings may have stemmed from racial pride, but their material support everything to do with his political affiliation.

Now that we’re in an election year, voters are beginning to reevaluate the president. And for some in crucial swing states like Ohio, his race has reemerged as a sticking point:

“I’ll just come right out and say it: he was elected because of his race,” said Sara Reese, a bank employee who said she voted for Ralph Nader in 2008, even though she usually votes Democrat. […]

Many who raised race as a concern cast Mr. Obama as a flawed candidate carried to victory by blacks voting for the first time. Others expressed concerns indirectly, through suspicions about Mr. Obama’s background and questions about his faith.

“He was like, ‘Here I am, I’m black and I’m proud,’ ” said Lesia Felsoci, a bank employee drinking a beer in an Applebee’s. “To me, he didn’t have a platform. Black people voted him in, that’s why he won. It was black ignorance.”

There are a few ideas at work here. The first is a perception that Obama is an “affirmative action candidate.” Far from someone who pulled himself up from modest beginnings, Obama is seen as a victor of the (perceived) racial spoils system. Everything, from his Harvard law degree to his Illinois Senate seat, was the result of guilt-induced white generosity.

Second, is the striking attitude toward black political agency. Traditionally, overwhelming black support has always gone toward white candidates: John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, etc. But this never came with complaints; no one questioned Clinton’s legitimacy because he received 84 percent of African American votes. 2008 was the first time in history that African Americans could give their one-sided support to a black presidential candidate, and at the same time, it was one of the few times (in the 20th century, at least) when voters questioned that president’s legitimacy because of his huge support from black voters.

This, I think, points to a broader discomfort with black political agency, and the relationship of African Americans to our political system. It’s not uncommon for voters to support in-group politicians—white Southerners and conservative Evangelicals come to mind. But African Americans are the only group challenged for doing so; the view captured by the New York Times, for example, is that it was illegitimate for blacks to vote overwhelmingly for Obama. This standard—a requirement to split their votes between the two parties black candidate is on the ballet—is unique to African American voters.

This isn’t a fringe perspective; Herman Cain’s appeal to conservatives was based, in part, on the notion that he had escaped the “Democratic planation.” Likewise, black voters have been described as “brain-washed slaves” who are addicted to government “dependency.” In other words, we can’t trust the political decisions of African Americans because they are tainted by a desire to advance their material interests. It’s “ignorance,” not an informed choice.

I’m not one who sees the current crop of voter identification laws as akin to Jim Crow voting restrictions; they have more to do with naked partisanship than they do with any notion of black inferiority. Buried in that, however, is a genuine unease with black political power and the (real) possibility that African Americans could decide the fate of the nation.