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5 November 2012

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.

By Ben Fox

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.

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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.