With three full years of an Obama administration to observe, a number of political thinkers are assessing what this presidency has accomplished. At a time when President Obama is running for re-election, the conversation centers on its effectiveness or lack thereof in tending to the problems of the country. While many analysts of one leaning or another can and do argue on those points, others choose to focus on how President Obama relates to his different constituencies. A vocal minority in the Black community point out that there is a marked difference in the way President Obama addresses Black voters.
Scholars of African-American history and politics have joined the dialogue on the issue of President Obama and his relationship with the Black electorate. Columbia University professor Fredrick Harris is the latest to raise this often contentious issue. In his new book The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black politics, Harris makes a bold assertion. Namely, that Obama’s success has come at a high price for Black politics.
To substantiate this claim, Harris explores the history of Black electoral politics of the past 40 years. Examining the presidential campaigns of Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, he highlights them as predecessors to Barack Obama. By documenting exactly how their bids for the presidency paved the way, Harris reveals how much the Black struggle has played a role in electoral politics. As time passes, that influence has waned, and today is somewhat muted.
This book, which is named after a collection of essays about race by James Baldwin, delves into contemporary Black political matters and takes the long view. Not accepting the surface analyses, Harris delineates Black politics into two wings of thought; coalition politics and independent Black politics. Through Jesse Jackson building on the work of Shirley Chisholm and Barack Obama further gaining from Jacksons two attempts at the White House, the lessons are apparent.
Harris illustrates that President Obama, much like other Black elected officials utilizing the coalition model often have to carefully navigate the issue of race for the sake of winning over white voters. Consequently, Black voters have made a deal of sorts as a collective not to openly press the president on issues specific to the Black community. Because of this peculiar dynamic, Harris describes Black voters as a “captured constituency” unable to venture elsewhere to have their concerns heard. As a result of this bargain, the Black electorate has a significantly decreased ability to push for targeted assistance on a number of issues disproportionately affecting the Black community. In exchange for a Black president, there is less policy demands on issues like mass incarceration and unemployment.
To answer those who would dismiss this assertion out of hand, The Columbia University professor cites the ways in which other constituencies are supported, and have their demands attended to. To illustrate how much of a difference there is, Harris points out the gains that other Democratic voting blocs have been able to secure by pressing for their particular concerns. In addition to delving into the issues on race and politics in terms of Black voters, Harris also offers an analysis on other issues that pertain to the Black community. He deals with the tradition of Black liberation theology and its diametrical opposite, the prosperity gospel. Also, the issue of personal responsibility as it pertains to Black people is examined for its role in Black politics.
The Price of The Ticket is a critical and unflinching examination of the Obama presidency and its relation to Black politics. This work is comparable to Peniel Joseph’s Dark Days, Bright Nights; another scholarly book that views the current presidency through the lense of Black politics. Harris makes his case convincingly, and provides the evidence for his assertions. It is vital to consider matters like this, because there will be long term effects of this self imposed silence on the Black community. In addition to being President Obama’s most loyal constituency, the behavior of the Black electorate will continue to be important in shaping America as a whole. This book asks questions of major importance, yet allows room for continued and necessary discussion. It is a valueable contribution to the scholarship on contemporary African-American politics.
Marc W. Polite