This is an important election year and communities of color will play a huge role in deciding the outcome in any number of races across the country.
—NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous
The NAACP is holding its 103rd annual convention in Houston this week and guess which presidential candidate—Barack Obama or Mitt Romney—is scheduled to show up in Texas to address the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
If you answered Obama, you guessed wrong.
It is Romney, the lily-white presumptive Republican nominee, who is traveling to Houston to make a major speech to this important black audience, while the country’s first African-American president is skipping this year’s NAACP confab in order to avoid having to confront some uncomfortable questions about the worsening state of black America under his administration.
At first glance, Obama’s decision to snub the NAACP and Romney’s determination to spend valuable campaign time courting the black vote doesn’t seem to make much sense. According to conventional wisdom, Obama should have a lock on the black vote. After all, nearly 96 percent of black voters cast their ballots for him in 2008, while 55 percent of white votes went for John McCain. Put bluntly, Obama would not be president today without black support.
Obama still polls in the mid-90’s among African-American voters, and yet Romney has correctly perceived a little-recognized softness in Obama’s black support. Romney believes that he has the opportunity to make significant inroads in the president’s once-solid black base. According to my reporting, Romney’s campaign managers hope to cut into Obama’s black vote by three or four percentage points—a big enough margin to make a critical difference in such crucial swing states as North Carolina.
If Romney’s calculations are correct—and I believe they are—a reduction in the black vote of that magnitude could cost Obama the election this time around. As a result, Romney is going to the NAACP meeting to lay down a marker in Obama’s base constituency.
Romney’s assessment looks pretty sound. To begin with, while the overall unemployment rate has held steady at 8.2 percent for the nation as a whole, black unemployment has continued to increase. Last month it rose to more than 14 percent, which is by far the highest of any voting block in America. Among residents in many inner cities like Detroit, black unemployment runs as high as 18.1 percent.
During the Obama presidency, the number of Americans on food stamps has skyrocketed to 46 million; many of these people are single black mothers and their children. The wealth gap between whites and blacks has continued to grow. And the black homeownership rate is the lowest it’s been in years while the foreclosure rate has soared.
Many socially conservative church-going blacks are deeply upset with Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. Recently, the president refused to meet with a group representing the 1,300-member Coalition of African-American Pastors to discuss the group’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “By embracing gay marriage, President Obama is leading the country down an immoral path,” said the Reverend William Owens, president of the coalition.
This isn’t the first time Obama has slighted the black community. As I reported in my book, “The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House,” Obama has largely ignored his black base and has never acknowledged his debt to the African-Americans business people in Chicago who helped launch his political career. As Hermene Hartman, the publisher of N’DIGO, Chicago’s leading African-American magazine, and the past president of the Alliance of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, a powerful group of African-Americans in Chicago, told me: “Barack is not necessarily known for his loyalty.”
I asked Hartman how she would rate Romney’s chances to siphon off a meaningful number of black votes from Obama.
“You have to start with the basic understanding that the African-American community is frustrated with Barack Obama,” she said. “With Obama’s election to the White House, we lived on romance, pride, and historical significance. That’s what 2008 was all about. It was Doctor King’s dream come true. Obama was perceived by African-Americans as a bright shining star, as hope, possibility, beauty, dignity, and an incredible family.
“We lived on that image for quite some time, but now the romance is gone and we have to face reality,” she continued. “The question that African-Americans are faced with is the same as all Americans—are you better off now than you were four years ago? And the answer is no.
“President Obama has courted gays and the Hispanic vote, but he has largely ignored the needs of African-Americans. He has taken the black vote for granted, because he believes we have nowhere else to go. The message is: Barack is black and therefore you will automatically vote for him.
“And this presents a real opportunity for Mitt Romney. He should focus on the black middle class and the black business class. He should remind them that Obama ran on the slogan of change, but that not all change is good. Romney should articulate to African-Americans that this is a capitalistic country and that, as a businessman, he can help fuel innovation, improve black schools, get jobs for inner-city people, and turn around this economy. If he does all that, he has a real chance of proving to blacks that he’s the candidate who will really fight for them.”
Edward Klein is the former foreign editor of Newsweek and former editor of The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the new book "Guilty As Sin" (Regnery Publishing, October 4).