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.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue