Black America waits anxiously as race re-emerges in the US election

In Florida, the Democrat charge is that Republicans are trying to stop black people from voting.

After the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and Virginia, the eve of election day in St Petersburg, Florida has a more laid-back feel to it. But the naturally relaxed mentality of the Sunshine State does not hide the fact that the state will, once again, be the focal point of a presidential election which hangs on a knife-edge.

In the last 48 hours, Floridian politics has got ugly. Democrat party accusations that state Republicans have changed voter registration rules to make it harder for poorer people to vote have been bubbling just below the surface for months. But on Sunday, the Florida Democrats filed a law suit to keep polling centres open until election day to allow an estimated four million Floridians hoping to vote early more chance to vote. Since the administration of elections is all decided at state-level, there is nothing to stop state Republicans from making it harder for supporters of their opponents to exercise their democratic rights, whether by changing voter registration rules or having few and inaccessible polling centres in areas where opposition support is high. Given that these tactics make it harder for the poor to vote, and African-Americans account for nearly 25 per cent of the country's poor, the Democrat charge is that Republicans are trying to stop black people from voting.

It is interesting that race has suddenly emerged as a campaign issue at the last minute. Indeed, with the media's intense focus on the US economy and then the devastation of north-east America caused by Hurricane Sandy, one aspect of the race - perhaps even the elephant in the room - has barely been mentioned. Namely, can a black President be re-elected in a country that has become increasingly racist during his term?

For her part, Avis Jones-Deweever, director of the Washington-based National Council for Negro Women, thinks that Obama's re-election would be a bigger achievement than his win in 2008.  For Jones-Deweever, who describes "an amazing feeling of peace and unity" that she and the African-American community enjoyed at Obama's inauguration, the backlash started immediately after he took the Oath of Office.

There is also increasing evidence that levels of racial prejudice in the US are on the increase. A poll by Associated Press in October found that over 50 per cent of Americans held racially prejudiced attitudes.

So how has American politics changed to reflect this growing racial tension? DeWeever lays the charge of racism at the Tea Party movement which she says "has very overt racial overtones". She questions the Tea Party mantra "let's take our country back" - from whom, she asks. It is a fair question, particularly of a political movement that is overwhelmingly white. At the Republican national convention in August many observed that there were more African-Americans on the stage than there were in the audience.

She reserves particular ire for the thinly veiled racism of the 'birthers' who, despite conclusive evidence, still dispute Obama's US citizenship. Several weeks ago, billionaire Donald Trump launched yet another predictably self-serving broadside on the President, demanding yet further proof of Obama's birth certification.

"There is always an extra reason for you to show you belong", Jones-DeWeever says, commenting with frustrating that "black hands built the White House".

In a sense, conservative Republicans are right to feel anxious. It is expected that 2046 will be the year that America will no longer be a white-majority country, with the Hispanic and African-American populations on the rise. But Jones-DeWeever lampoons Republican attempts to stop African-Americans from voting, rather than changing their policies, insisting that conservatives across a number of states have attempted to enact laws making it harder to register to vote. There has been "a blatant attempt to reduce access to vote for non-white people", she notes.

Although there has been widespread criticism of Obama's record specifically as a black President, DeWeever insists that the African-American community is still very supportive of the President and have registered to vote in their hordes. Twenty four per cent of African-Americans live in poverty. Civil rights will certainly be eroded by a Romney presidency, she says. Meanwhile, the budget slashing plan of Vice-Presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Paul Ryan is "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor".

DeWeever says that it was "fairy dust" to expect Obama to pursue a specific 'black-focused' agenda but defends his record on job creation programmes that would disproportionately benefit poor Americans. Meanwhile, the Obama presidency has changed the nature of political discourse. Black people are "new to 'insider' politics", she says, "now we are in the the Oval Office we need to up our game".

But if there has been a mistake in the Obama strategy, a "lack of vision had been potentially the fatal flaw". There needed to be a Democratic version of the Reagan-inspired "morning in America" theme to this election campaign. It is certainly true that much of the gloss of the 2008 Obama wore off long ago, but there are few indications that black and brown-skinned Americans will not back their president enthusiastically on Tuesday. This time, with the national and Floridian opinion polls showing a statistical dead-heat, Obama will be more dependent on their votes if he is to cling on to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, with American politics as divided as it has been for a generation, black America must watch and wait anxiously for one more day.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer.

Supporters listen to Barack Obama during a campaign rally at McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.
A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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