On election night at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad warned the audience in the Langston Hughes auditorium that what they were about to be shown would likely offend them. The projection of live presidential election coverage ceased and was replaced by a collection of racist caricatures of president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. The crowd groaned. Many of them had seen these images before.
With that, Dr. Muhammad, the Schomburg Center’s director, set the tone for a discussion between the panelists on the racist messaging that the Republican party had helped nourish since Obama won his first term in 2008. Newt Gingrich labeling Obama the “Welfare President” and the “Food Stamp President” during the 2012 Republican primaries was mentioned as an example. Governor Mitt Romney’s now infamous remarks to donors in which he derided 47 percent of Americans as “victims” who “are dependent on government” and would “vote for the president no matter what” were also cited.
“Even if it’s not overt, we know who they’re referring to when they say this type of thing. We know,” said activist Monifa Bandele as many in the crowd nodded in agreement. Earlier, she had claimed that Republicans were underestimating the numbers of people of color and the youth who would come out to support Obama. Michaela Angela Davis, a fellow panelist, added women to that list. When exit polls were published in the days following the election, their words proved prophetic.
Ninety-three percent of black voters opted for the president, as did 71 percent Hispanics , 73 percent of Asian Americans, and 55 percent of women. Chet Whye, the campaign director for “Harlem 4 Obama,” believes that Republican attempts to suppress the minority vote through identification laws in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida ended up galvanizing these constituencies into braving the long lines and making sure their voice was heard.
“Voter suppression backfired on them [Republicans]. It struck a nerve with a lot of the electorate and especially the black electorate. The threat of suppression reminded people a lot of what our fore-parents had to go through during the civil rights movement,” he said.
Even though African Americans did indeed turn out in large numbers to cast their ballot in favor of America’s first black president, the support was slightly down from the 95 percent showing of 2008’s election and is tempered by criticism. Many point to the black unemployment rate of 14.3 percent, which is close to being double the national average of 7.9 percent, as being particularly troubling.
For his part, Dr. William Jelani Cobb, another Schomburg election night panelist, is hoping that President Obama will use his second term to focus on ending a war on drugs that disproportionately affects communities of color. Three days after the election, Dr. Muhammad stressed the point further.
“I see ending the war on drugs and the education crisis as civil rights issues. The choices that we make in terms of criminalizing a population as opposed to educating them are two sides of the same coin,” he said in a phone interview.
“President Obama and the first lady have a lot of capital they could spend on changing the narrative in this country around the criminalization of drug use and addiction. I have tremendous respect for the first lady’s commitment to ending obesity but frankly I’d rather a lot more fat people than I would the numbers of black and brown people who are headed to prison.”
Dr. Muhammad also added the need for the president to set the tone in combating what he termed “racist and discriminatory” policies such as the New York Police Department’s practice of “Stop and Frisk” and hoped that Obama would be more visible in the black communities that supported him overwhelmingly at the polls on Tuesday.
“He’s got to spend some time in his own city walking through communities of black people, using the symbolism of his presidency as an inspiration,” he said.
Even if he chose to pursue the aforementioned policies, whether Obama would be able to push them through congress is questionable at best. He faces a republican majority that has shown little sign of altering an obstructionist stance that it adopted since his election in 2008. He is headed towards his first showdown with them over the looming “financial cliff,” a hangover from last year’s budget crisis that almost saw America default on its debts and led to its credit rating being downgraded.
Nevertheless, both Dr. Muhammad and Whye agree that the president must be firmer than he has been in the past four years. They argue that the 2012 election turned out to be a repudiation of Reagan era policies and a referendum that has strengthened the Democratic administration’s positions across the board.
Whye contends that it’s not all down to the president though. Harnessing the energy from this election, remaining politically active, and keeping pressure on congress is the key in his eyes.
“We need to be out in the street making noise to help drive policy,” he said. “We sent a message to the Republican party on election day but that doesn’t mean the message was received.”