In Altgeld Gardens, a poor estate on Chicago’s South Side where Barack Obama first campaigned for change as a community organiser, local activists are discussing plans to ensure that residents are registered to vote. Sandra Watson, a 65-year-old great-grandmother, is hoarse from stressing to the group the importance of getting Obama re-elected. Even though she relies on social security and widows’ benefits to survive, she has donated what she can afford to his campaign.
“I don’t get much but I send my nickels and dimes because I believe in him,” she says. “I cried like an alley rat eating an onion when I watched him get elected and I’m not giving up on him now. Mitt Romney don’t care about us people and we don’t want to be going back to the way things used to be.”
Her passion is typical of the strength of feeling that drove more black Americans to vote in the 2008 election than ever before. Their support will be as decisive in this year’s elections in some of the swing states but the turnout is likely to be lower.
Cheryl Johnson, who worked with Obama in the 1980s to have asbestos removed from the apartments on the estate, says that they are facing an uphill battle, not simply because of apathy, but because of their history. “We were indoctrinated through slavery to believe we can’t vote,” she says to a slow nodding of heads around the room. Her comment goes some way to explaining why many black Americans are still so supportive of Obama even though their conditions – they are nearly twice as likely as white people to be unemployed and make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population – have not improved under his presidency.
“He’s had such great opposition it’s made it impossible for him to do anything,” Johnson argues. “This country has been built on the perception that the white man doesn’t have to take orders from a black man.”
Visiting the Developing Communities (DCP) project that Obama joined as a 23-year-old, I hear Gwen Rice, its current director, express similar despair at the treatment the president has received. “There is still a sense of privilege among white people and many of the attempts to stop what he’s doing have been because he’s black,” she says. “No matter how high you rise, you’re still a black person in a white man’s world.”
Fredrick C Harris, professor of political science at Columbia University, Obama’s alma mater, says these opinions are typical of a mentality that places symbolism above substance. “There is a sense that the black community should protect the country’s first black president because he operates as such a powerful symbolic force.”
Yet Harris accuses the black community of failing to hold Obama to account. “It seems perverse that America should elect its first black president and then find a complete shutdown of discussion on the issue of racial inequality . . . He’s just lacked the courage to raise these issues in case the right uses them against him.”
At Obama’s old church, a short walk down the road from the DCP offices, there is no lack of confidence in proclaiming black identity. “Unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian”, reads a banner hanging from the balcony at Trinity United Church of Christ, where Jeremiah Wright delivered his infamous sermons.
Yet a press officer explains to me that neither the clergy nor even the members of the church are allowed to speak out about the president until after the election.
Their enforced silence speaks volumes about the stigma attached to Obama’s black identity, his apparent fear of association with his past and the impossible job he’s had in realising the hopes of the African Americans who watched his victory speech through tears of joy.