Hailed by some as the “end of race as we know it” and the beginning of a “post-racial” America, the 2008 election of Barack Obama sparked a measurable bump in feelings of political empowerment among black Americans.Something fun and short for the weekend.
But those sentiments have faded considerably over the last year or so, according to a new analysis of political survey data, with the sharpest declines in perceived political power coming from blacks who identify themselves as conservatives or “born again” Christians.
“The election of a black American to the U.S. presidency did seem to empower African Americans, causing an increase in levels of perceived freedom,” writes James L. Gibson, PhD, the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government and professor of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
“But that increase seems to have been epiphenomenal, with perceived levels of freedom after 2009 soon reverting to their prior level. The boost in empowerment that earlier research has documented may be of little long-term consequence. Instead, ideology and religiosity are now fairly strongly connected to perceptions of freedom among black Americans.”
As Pastor Manning says, you blacks are an incorrigible group of people! What can possibly satisfy you? What would make you happy? How do you define political empowerment?
Professor James Gibson at Washington University would seem to agree:
While some pundits characterize the black electorate as a monolithic voting block ready to back Obama no matter what, Gibson’s analysis reveals a black America fractured by surprisingly diverse political viewpoints.
Key findings include:
Electing an African American to the presidency raised black perceptions of political freedom, but only for a fairly short period. By 2011, perceptions of freedom among blacks were at the same level as in 2005.
Black Americans still perceive much greater constraints on their political freedom than do white Americans, especially in situations where political actions could be perceived as questioning government authority.
• 67.7 percent of whites assert that the government would allow them to make a speech in public, whereas only 45.7 percent of African Americans hold this view.
• 14.8 percent of whites assert that hardly anyone feels free to speak their mind; 22.1 percent of blacks hold this view.
Perceptions of freedom among Christian fundamentalists (irrespective of race) are among the most constrained in contemporary American politics.
Black perceptions of political freedom have decreased significantly among fundamentalist blacks, especially those who consider themselves to be “born again.”
Conservative blacks and liberal blacks perceived equivalent levels of freedom prior to the election, but after, conservative blacks felt markedly less free than liberal blacks.
Blacks are equally divided, with half who perceive constraints on their freedom and half who do not.
By far, the most powerful predictor of levels of perceived freedom is education: Poorly educated black Americans do not believe that they have the freedom to participate fully in politics.As a social scientist, I love empirical research that informs our conversations about politics, race, and the Age of Obama.
Whenever possible, I try to have our conversations here on WARN informed by the same rule.
Many black Americans cried when Barack Obama was elected. However--and this is a key modifier--we approached that moment with far more cynicism and realpolitik than our white friends and allies. As a community we are far less naive, and much more sophisticated about the realities of power, than most white Americans are by necessity. If Obama lost, black Americans would have smiled, and therefore won either way, because his getting that far defied all expectations.
Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, black folks (and other people of color to varying degrees) are possessed of a darkly cynical, and practical, sense of humor. African Americans have to laugh to keep from crying because our community has witnessed some of the most bizarre occurrences in human history--we were owned as human chattel in the world's "greatest democracy," have only been full citizens for less than fifty years, and one our tribe somehow managed to ascend to the presidency.
We learned to balance our smiles and cries as a means of maintaining our sanity in ways that white folks in America, and those otherwise racially privileged, have not. That is why black Americans are the moral and ethical conscience of a nation; those others are (quite frankly) very weak, and subsequently do not have that honorific (or the burden which comes with it).
Dr. Gibson's research leads me to a counter-intuitive finding.
When--and trust me, it is not "if"--Barack Obama loses in November, it will be white liberals and white progressives who are far more surprised and upset than black and brown folks about the outcome. This is easily explained: given black and brown folks' intimate familiarity with the absurdities and contradictions of American democracy, nothing surprises us; nevertheless, we remain hopeful dreamers.
Is that a blessing or a curse? I am unsure.
By comparison, white privilege works on both the Left and the Right. In practice, this means that many white folks (and yes, not all of them) have been acculturated to believe that life somehow always works out in the end to their advantage.
The blues sensibility means that black Americans will "keep on keeping on," as we always have been, after Obama is not reelected. I do worry about my white friends and allies though: do they have the coping skills to deal with the disappointment that will come when their Great Black Hope is struck down by Mitt Romney? And in which direction will their anger, and subsequent resentment, be directed towards?