By Chris Levister
In 2008 Inland Empire African American voters overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama’s historic rise to the presidency. At polling places across San Bernardino and Riverside Counties they turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers. More than 59 percent of African-Americans aged 25 to 29 voted compared with 47 percent in 2004. Just under half of young White voters showed up, much the same as in 2004.
But this time around, while local African American support for electing the first Black president to a second term remains solid, that support is tinged with worry and skepticism.
Four years later, with the presidential contest teetering on a knife’s edge, many African American voters facing unprecedented unemployment and diminished dreams regard the presidential race as a less than enthusiastic choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
At Andre’s hair salon in San Bernardino, clients worried aloud about President Obama's support for gay marriage and his party’s focus on immigration while the plight of African Americans has been largely ignored. Worries over 14.4 percent unemployment among Blacks and the threat of going backward under a Mitt Romney administration have left voters like Leyasha Williams conflicted.
“Some of us feel like we’ve been kicked in the gut,” said Williams.
Williams, 38, an unemployed college graduate, lost her job as an insurance adjuster in Orange, California, amid the 2008 credit crunch. Unemployed for several months she worked temporarily at a nonprofit for one-third her previous salary. The employment rollercoaster slashed her bank balance and left her net worth in tatters, said the married mother of two. Williams like many African American voters is inclined to vote for Obama, however, she believes his administration has failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality.
Amid a sluggish economic recovery over the past three years, Black households’ median annual income fell 11.1 percent, more than twice the 5.2 percent inflation-adjusted decline suffered by White households, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data.
“African Americans in particular have been very, very hard hit, not only in the recession, but in the recovery that followed,” says economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution.
Today’s 14.1 percent Black unemployment rate is almost twice the 7.4 percent White rate. The racial gap -- after narrowing from 2005 to 2009 -- has widened since the recession’s June 2009 end. At Obama’s inauguration, 7.1 percent of Whites were jobless compared with 12.7 percent of Blacks.
Four years ago, African-Americans accounted for more than one of every eight votes cast. Obama captured 95 percent of the Black vote in 2008, bettering the mark of the 2004 Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, by 7 percentage points. Even Republicans acknowledge that the president this year is certain to receive more than 90 percent of the Black support. Yet questions remain about African-American voters’ enthusiasm given their struggles during his presidency.
Retired teacher Laura Hendricks says she has received neither mail nor phone calls from President Obama’s campaign. She accused Democrats of taking African Americans for granted while wooing Latinos with promises of green cards, jobs and greater access to U.S. colleges and universities.
“The Democrats 40-year stronghold on African Americans is worrisome,” said Hendricks.
Salon regular Lacy Brownley, 62, who started a shipping company in 1985 after being laid off from a corporate accounting job countered citing data that 52 percent of the African Americans surveyed said the Republican Party ignores the Black community completely.
Brownley said the president has made a good argument for his re-election underscoring that his achievements have been under-estimated and under-remembered.
He called Mr. Obama's expansion of health insurance coverage the most significant social legislation since the Great Society, “his stimulus package blunted much of the devastation of the Great Recession, and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul added major new protections for consumers.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a close Obama ally said that the issue comes down to a misunderstanding of Obama’s role. “This is the first time in this country that we have an African American president. He is not the president of African Americans,” Sharpton said. “The problem we’re seeing with too many older-minded people is you don’t want the next generation. You want clones. And people don’t have to be your clone to validate your sacrifice.”
The Brookings Institution’s Burtless says the implosion of the nation’s housing market is central to understanding Blacks’ financial plight. Home ownership among Blacks fell about twice as much in percentage terms as among Whites during the housing crash, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. And minorities, including Blacks, have lost their homes to foreclosure at higher rates than Whites.
Black workers, statistically less likely than Whites to have a college degree, suffered as the economy shed lower-skilled manufacturing and construction jobs. Minority-owned small businesses are often the first to feel the pinch as corporations retrench.
Jamil Killens, a mechanical engineer blamed the weak economy and a relentless conservative backlash against an African American president. Four years ago he canvassed his Riverside neighborhood, participated in phone banking and stood in line 3 hours at the San Bernardino election office to cast a vote for President Obama. These days his tone is less enthusiastic than when I interviewed him at this same location six days ahead of the 2008 presidential election.
He urged those disillusioned with the president to help organize grass root initiatives within the Black Community to raise their awareness, clean up the communities, promote get better health care, show young brothers that hustling and jail are not their only options; thus showing their commitment to the Black Populace.
It’s easy to say you want change, Killens said “but you have to be willing to hammer relentlessly continually crying aloud, shattering every barrier and forcing open every closed door,” he said.
“Every American has a duty to keep this great country moving forward.”
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