African-Americans turned out in record numbers in 2008 to help elect the nation’s first black president — many of them carrying an implicit hope that Barack Obama would slow the economic bleeding sapping the life out of thousands of black households.
But four years later, sky-high rates of unemployment and poverty have many of Obama’s most loyal supporters still hoping for a better tomorrow.
With less than two months until Election Day, it remains unclear whether disillusionment over the economy will keep enough African-Americans home to alter Obama’s race against Mitt Romney.
“This election is about economics,” House Speaker John Boehner said during last month’s GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., arguing that minority turnout won’t be a repeat of 2008. “These groups have been hit the hardest. And they may not show up and vote for our candidate, but I’d suggest to you that they won’t show up and vote for the president, either.”
An estimated one in four African-Americans live in poverty, according to national statistics — conditions that haven’t improved despite the historic nature of Obama’s presidency. But opinions vary on whether that will hurt the Obama vote come November.
Charles Showell, dean of the business school at Central State University, noted that poverty and unemployment have historically been disproportionately higher for blacks, but the majority of black voters have remained loyal to Democrats.
“The black unemployment rate always hovers around being double that of whites,” Showell said. “It was the same way under Bush and Clinton, and blacks still voted for the Democrat.”
Average black unemployment in Ohio last year was 17.2 percent, compared to 7.6 percent for whites and 8.8 percent for Hispanics and Latinos, according to the most recent annualized figures available from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Nationally, black unemployment was slightly lower, averaging 15.8 percent in 2011. But that was still twice the rate for whites, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, Showell was quick to point out that while black unemployment has remained high under the Obama administration, it was even higher under former Republican President Ronald Reagan, who also presided over an economy emerging from recession.
The average black unemployment rate was 19.5 percent in 1983, three years into Reagan’s first term in office.
Since 1977, black unemployment under Republican administrations has averaged 16.4 percent — more than five percentage points higher than the 11.1 percent average under Democrats, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of BLS figures.
“Black folks who say they’re no better off under Obama need to ask themselves how well off they would be under another Republican administration,” said Showell, who predicts black voters will once again turn out in droves to support Obama in the upcoming election.
“I think when black people look at him, they say, ‘Yes, we’re not happy with the economic picture, but it’s not entirely your fault,’” Showell said.
Bryan Marshall, a political science professor at Miami University, said Obama still holds enduring appeal among a majority of black voters because of their cultural affinity to the president and the perception that he’s looking out for their best interests, even if they’re no better off economically.
“You look at whites, and much of their voting is based on partisanship; they automatically identify with one party or another,” Marshall said. “But even among African-Americans that identify themselves as conservative, they still overwhelmingly tend to support President Obama and voted overwhelmingly to support President Obama in 2008.”
“I have no reason to believe that this dynamic will be any different for 2012,” Marshall said.
Still, it would be difficult for any politician to duplicate the overwhelming support from black voters that Obama enjoyed four years ago when he benefited from voter backlash against incumbent George W. Bush and the fervor surrounding his unique candidacy, said Kevin Holtsberry, president of the right-leaning Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus.
“Obama’s unique background as the first African-American president, his style, the war in Iraq, and the economy all came together as a perfect storm for Obama,” Holtsberry said. “But that was a history-making event. He’s a known commodity now, and I just don’t see that happening again.”
Even a slight erosion in black support for Obama could give Romney an edge, especially in a closely contested toss-up state like Ohio, where Obama has maintained a thin lead in most polls.
“The question is how much of a drop will we see within the African-American community,” Holtsberry said. “Within a very close race, obviously, just a percentage point or two can be a very big deal.”
Stephen Cheek, former president of the Ohio Black Republicans Association, said Obama’s performance on the economy doesn’t merit the same level of support from black voters.
“The fact is the poverty and unemployment levels haven’t improved under Obama as promised,” Cheek said. “Even though the recession may have been stronger and deeper than we realized, the fact still remains he has to take some responsibility for that.”
Cheek said popular black leaders have maintained what he described as a double-standard when it comes to holding Obama accountable.
“You know and I know that Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, you name ‘em would be standing in front of the White House with bricks in their hands if it were a Republican president, and black unemployment were at 17 percent,” Cheek said.
James Lewis III, who works part-time at Madden Golf Course in Dayton, said he
plans to vote for the incumbent again this year because he believes the alternative would be worse, noting Republican policies call for cutbacks on government programs that disproportionately benefit blacks and other minorities.
“Things may not have gotten better over the past four years, but I believe they will if we continue to stay the course,” said Lewis. “As a segment of society, I think blacks have had many more opportunities, and will continue to have many more opportunities, under a philosophy that says, “OK. We understand why government has to intervene.”
But Lewis admits he has struggled economically since Obama took office. He was laid off in 2010 from his job as an administrator at a community action agency in Waterbury, Conn., and saw his income drop from more than $100,000 a year to his minimum-wage job. His jobless benefits expired months ago, and it has been a struggle for him to find a decent full-time job, even with several advanced degrees and his background as top-level executive.
“My main profession is neurophysiology and consulting, and nobody is hiring for that right now,” he said.
While Lewis still supports Obama, he knows some blacks feel differently.
“When you work at a golf course, you hear a lot of people talk, and I’ve heard many black people say that they didn’t get what they wanted (under President Obama),” he said. “They expected change to happen quickly, and it didn’t happen.”
Brian Jarvis, a black Republican and Beavercreek city councilman, said he hopes most black voters will vote because of issues and ideology and not race.
“I understand the appeal in the black community of having a black president in the White House,” he said. “But when I talk to people about that, I tell them that ever since I was a young man, I was taught not to base my decisions on the color of a man’s skin. If that’s the only reason they (black voters) are voting for him, that would be a disappointment for me. That’s not what Dr. (Martin Luther) King talked about, and that’s not where we should be 50 years later.”
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