Among black voters, support for the president, but waning enthusiasmby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Back in 2008 Carolyn Smaller always kept the TV on CNN in her St. Paul flower shop. Barack Obama was heading down a historic path to the presidency and she didn't want to miss a step.
Smaller said this election cycle, the news is a lot harder to watch.
"Sometimes I turn the TV off, because it just is so disheartening to see how people are so unfair and just so hurtful," she said.
In the fall of 2008, some African-American voters told MPR News they were excited and moved by the prospect of electing the country's first black president. Now, some of those same people say they still support Barack Obama, but voter enthusiasm among the black community is waning.
Smaller thinks there's definitely a racial element to a lot of that criticism. She expected that. But she's surprised by the number of people who appear to her to be cheering against the country and the president.
"If they were giving him a chance, I could go with the comments," she said. "But they're not giving him a chance and also making a lot of bad comments about him."
Sasha Cotton, 30, of St. Paul said President Obama is a little more conservative than she thought he'd be. But Cotton, a youth advocate for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, thinks he's done a good job, especially on issues like health care and stem cell research. And she's very sensitive about the treatment Obama's received.
"I feel very defensive," she said. "I feel like it's my job as an African-American voter and woman to defend his position in the world. I mean I think that as African American people we feel a certain kinship to him."
But Cotton said Black America's relationship to the President is more complicated than people think.
"One of things that comes up largely within the African American community is that he's not a classic African American," he said.
As the son of a Kenyan father and living all over the world, Cotton says Obama's experience is more African than African-American. She says the black community's support for Obama might be a little more tenuous were he not married to Michelle.
"We feel a connection to her that um, you don't want to be stereotypical, but that there's fried chicken being cooked in the White House and that the girls are using 'just for me' perms just like the ones you used when you were a kid," she said. "So, there's a connection there that I think is different from Barack."
At the Golden Thyme Coffee shop in St. Paul, Melvin Giles, a local peace activist and adjunct instructor at Bethel University, said he tends to look at America's reception of Barack Obama from a historical perspective. He said black people know how long change can take.
"I think patience is a black thing," he said. "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he told America, it's going to be long to change people's hearts, it's going to be long change people's minds, but it's having patience."
Polls show Obama's support is much higher among African-Americans than the general population. John Powell, executive director of Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity say's that's ironic, because things may have gotten worse for blacks under Obama.
Powell, a former University of Minnesota professor, said blacks have been disproportionately affected by the recession and the sub prime mortgage crisis. But Powell said African Americans identify with Obama and the challenges he faces.
"And there's a sense that a segment of the white community in particular, is watching him like a hawk," he said. "Any signs that he is doing something for the African-American community or favoring the African-American community will be trumped on, and make it hard for him to govern. So people, in that sense, give slack."
But Powell said this scrutiny has made the administration reluctant to take on the problems of the black community, or to use the bully pulpit on issues of race and bigotry. He said in that regard Obama doesn't seem to be having the impact of some of his predecessors.
"I mean, Reagan changed the culture of the country," he said. "Nixon changed the culture of the country. Johnson changed the culture of the country, whether you think it was for better or worse. To some extent, the Obama administration from my perspective, is responding to the culture of the country, and they're ceding some of that ground to Fox News."
Powell believes that privately, many African-Americans are disappointed by the president's lack of commitment to their issues. That may help explain why even though they still support him, black voters may not turn out this year in the numbers they did two years ago.
- All Things Considered, 10/27/2010, 4:51 p.m.