By Ron Walters
While all of us are understandably proud of the showing that Barack Obama is making this presidential election, I continue to also point out the cost. Symbolic of this is that while the National Baptist Convention was meeting in Cincinnati recently, Barack was in Akron giving a major education speech just 52 miles up the road.
And although he sent Michelle Obama to the convention, she delivered a largely pedestrian speech urging Blacks to get out and vote that was–again–silent about how Barack would address the pressing questions at the heart of the Black community.
Earlier on, I noted that Radio One recently had a $7 million deficit for the first quarter of this year and wondered how it is that a Black-owned radio empire could run a deficit in the middle of a presidential campaign if it was receiving the advertising revenue from the campaigns that it has in the past.
The Obama Campaign raised $66 million in the month of August, yet although it has announced a vigorous voter registration drive for the Black community, it doesn’t seem to have taken into account funding the Black civic culture.
In “Freedom Is Not Enough,” I wrote that in the 2004 election, American Coming Together (ACT), a White Democratic-leaning 527 organization funded by a collection of rich donors like George Soros went around Black civic and religious organizations and sponsored its own voter turnout drive in the Black community. Legions of kids with Blackberries showed up in places where the NAACP, Urban League, National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, Black churches, Black labor unions and local Black civic organizations had worked for years to turnout the Black vote successfully. The result was that not only were many of the Black organizations de-funded, but our strong Black churches and civic organizations were pushed aside to make way for professional canvassers.
Again in this election cycle, I have heard stories of young Whites showing up in Black communities to register Black voters. While on the face of it, this would be a good exercise in race relations, this is a game of community power. The power of the Black community in elections has always resided not only in its turnout but in the fact that the turnout was controlled by Black leadership.
There is an old law of politics that he who controls the voter controls the power that it represents. So, when Blacks were turned out by strong White-controlled urban machines in the first half of the 20th century, those White bosses owned the power of the Black vote and they used it for their own ends.
One of the major objectives of the Civil Rights movement was not only to enable Blacks to vote in big numbers and to have their vote have an impact in the political system, it was that it should be controlled by Black leadership who would do the bargaining for issues with that system. Is this basic fact of politics now to be sacrificed in a “post-civil rights” world?
The Obama campaign is using the same tactics of ACT, financing thousands of young kids coming into Black communities to register Black voters, when from my brief survey, traditional Black organizations who have done this for years have received no funding from the campaign. Now, there are some legal issues here that complicate 501c3 organizations receiving direct funding from political campaigns and the fact that the Obama campaign has raised more money than the Democratic Party and leaned on 527s not to come into the game. But it seems to me that they could have been worked out to enable the Obama campaign to be an empowerment vehicle for the Black community.
So, it was somewhat ironic to me that Michelle Obama would urge a convention of Black Baptist ministers to turn out their people to vote–at the last minute in the campaign, with no accompanying funding mechanism–when Blacks have criticized the Democratic party for years for doing the same thing. I think that the Obama campaign, when all is said and done, should be more than something we can point to with pride insofar as he ran a good campaign. This campaign will have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, most of which will have gone into the White community. Is that also something we should be proud of?
This is another feature of the accountability of this campaign to the Black community and my view is that those who have been critical of the Democratic Party all these years cannot now give Obama a pass just because he is Black.
(Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. One of his latest books is: Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics. This column was distributed by the NNPA.)