President Obama spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus last week, making headlines when he told his audience that if African Americans did not turn out for Hillary Clinton, he would consider it a personal insult and an insult to his legacy. While President Obama is right to push people to participate, it is unsettling that he would hinge his legacy on the African American vote at such a time when people are losing hope in institutional politics, for good reasons. It begs the question: why are African Americans responsible for saving a nation that has chosen to elevate a blatantly racist and misogynist candidate?
At the CBC event, President Obama was initially cheerful, recounting his legacy and the strides the nation–and particularly African Americans–have made during his presidency. He highlighted the national recovery from the recession, new job creation, the expansion of healthcare to 20 million Americans, including 3 million African Americans. He noted that the high school graduation rate was at an all time high for all Americans. He emphasized strides made in criminal justice reform, and the decline in poverty rates which are the largest in 50 years.
After considering the progress that has been made, Obama turned somber. He proclaimed that the United States still had work to be done, and that this election was a critical opportunity to either build or decimate the progress that has been made. President Obama challenged the idea that votes do not matter, invoking the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow barriers to the ballot box as a symbol of the importance of the vote and the struggles African Americans have endured to achieve political power.
Listen for these comments at 19 minutes in the video below.
Indeed, these struggles are essential and no doubt bear on the present political moment; yet, something about President Obama’s tone and the responsibility he placed on black voters for electing Hillary is disappointing. President Obama has a history of speaking down to black voters, from “pull up [your] pants” comments, to admonishing Morehouse graduates to have “no excuses,” to telling the people of Flint to not lose hope in government or the systems that failed them and their children so miserably.
Obama’s willingness to tie his legacy to candidate that many African Americans (particularly young black activists) feel ambivalent towards is additionally disappointing. It is true that Hillary Clinton is our best option this fall. But why is it our responsibility alone to ensure the best possible outcome in a system that never really had black people in mind? If black voters want to let America be America and suffer the consequences of a Donald Trump presidency that is absolutely their business.
While I personally see the personal and political risk of not voting for Clinton this November, I know that some are looking at the options and feeling disillusioned, unable to reconcile their political beliefs with the choices on the ballot. It is also clear that electoral politics alone is not the only way to bring about change in the United States. While Obama related the progress made over the last 8 years to his presidency, it is a fact that activist and organizers on the ground contributed to and are sustaining the recent strides made against poverty, in criminal justice reform, and in education. We know that institutional politics alone will not save us.
It is expected that the president would admonish those uninterested in voting this November to participate. I will additionally concede that working under a favorable political regime will likely be preferable for those who wish to bring about change in the United States (and trust–Donald Trump will not have a political regime favorable to activists). However, at this point, it is not fair for Obama to place the weight of his legacy on black voters alone.
Historically, we have been the soul and the conscience of this nation, spearheading progress in multiple arenas–from Civil Rights, to gay rights, to women’s rights. But it is certainly up to each individual black voter to assess and consider the last eight years as well as the present political moment. We are not responsible for saving Obama’s legacy or for securing Clinton’s win this November; rather, if Obama and Clinton are interested in black votes, they are responsible for hearing black voices and establishing favorable political conditions. We don’t owe them; they owe us.
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