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Obama, race and the 2012 Election

Zaineb Mohammed | 3/14/2012, 8:18 a.m.

But black and Latino leaders will come together and try to mobilize a black and brown coalition around that issue in order to re-elect Obama.

Black leaders are aware that the worst thing that can happen for their group is to have divisive conflict with Latinos. They know that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population and their power is likely to continue to increase, and black power is likely to diminish relative to that so they see that it doesn’t make sense not to have a coalition with it. They are driven by the long-term strategic sense of what is in the African American community’s interests, and also the wish to reelect Obama.

In order to have any kind of progressive coalition there has to be unity between blacks and browns. California, especially southern California, is ground zero. If it works here in a viable way, then that probably means it would work most other places.

What are the criticisms of Obama coming out of the African American community?

Among black intellectuals, it’s about the economics, particularly joblessness – the fact that in this depression, the President has acted as if high unemployment among blacks does not exist. He talks about the middle class, but rarely mentions poor people and certainly never mentions the racialization of poverty in the United States.

I hear more criticism from ordinary black people that I talk to about his foreign policy, particularly about Libya and his intervention there. The view is that he has not done enough to disengage from the wars.

Has Obama purposefully avoided issues like the racialization of poverty?

He has for sure. I just finished a book in which I compare President Kennedy and President Obama as the first ethnic presidents. Both practice the politics of ethnic avoidance. The first person of any ethnic group who wins the presidency has to go out of his way to demonstrate to the majority that he will not show any kind of favoritism toward his particular group. Kennedy bent over backwards not to be associated with the Catholics. Obama has done that, and as in the case with Kennedy, it is unfortunate.

But if Obama did what his black critics want him to do, it would effectively destroy his presidency. If he started speaking forcefully about racialized poverty, there would be a groundswell of opposition from the right wing press and even from the Democratic Party. That’s the trade off; in order to have a symbol of one of your own in the presidency you can’t get more of the substance.

Would African Americans have been better off with a different president?

I think that Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, would have been in a better position to address the problem of racialized poverty than Obama. She could not have been accused of favoritism, blacks could have brought more pressure on her than “one of their own.”

Obama is confident that once we get into the heat of a campaign the blacks will rally around him in the same way, if not more so than in 2008.