Claire Prentice: Praying for black vote to show face
STANDING on a street corner in downtown Philadelphia, a well-dressed black man clutching a Bible is preaching a mixture of religion and politics. Reaching out towards the crowds of passers-by, he says: “A lot of us have felt uncertainty, about this economy, and about this election. Have faith in God but go out and vote.”
It’s a sentiment that might be expected to strike a chord in this city, which has been shaped by the twin forces of reforming politics and evangelical religion. But, aside from an elderly couple, nobody stops to listen.
Philadelphia has been hard hit by the economic downturn. The historic district where the constitution was signed and the Declaration of Independence proclaimed is an island of old world charm, but around the city’s waterfront, formerly grand old buildings lie empty, their windows boarded up. Across from the Liberty Bell, the world-famous symbol of freedom and independence, college-age men and women root through the bins in search of food and half-smoked cigarettes. One holds a sign which reads: “Hungry, homeless. Desperate.”
The fifth most populous city in the United States, Philadelphia should be natural Democrat territory. But instead it encapsulates many of the challenges facing president Barack Obama as he seeks re-election. Obama is still popular in Philadelphia, a centre of black political activism for centuries, where 43.4 per cent of the population is black and 41 per cent is white.
But many Philadelphians are noticeably worse off than they were four years ago. The city’s unemployment rate has stayed at 11.6 per cent and the median household income is $34,207 (around £21,370) compared with $51,914 (around £32,433) nationwide.
Nine floors above the street, in a windowless grey conference room, a group of African-American business people are talking in stark terms about the economy. “If you are having a hard time finding a job and paying the rent, do you feel motivated to go out and vote for the person you feel has failed to create those jobs?” says Lowell Thomas, an Obama-supporting lawyer with a housing company.
“People look for instant gratification, they want to vote for the person who can help them now,” says Shalimar Blakely, who runs a PR company.
Blakely grew up in northern Philadelphia in the projects, the towering public housing blocks which have a reputation for drug use, violence and prostitution.
“The day after Obama was elected I rolled down the window of my car in the neighbourhood where I grew up and shouted to the drug dealers, who I knew because we grew up together, ‘hey, you don’t need to sell drugs any more. We’ve got an African-American president. Anything is possible’.”
Now she thinks voters had unrealistic expectations of what Obama could achieve in one term. “America has absolutely changed in the last four years but the mistake we made was thinking ‘we’ve arrived’.”
Blakely believes Obama has introduced a lot of policies which have benefited the black population. She says: “We have disproportionately high rates of breast cancer, diabetes and obesity. We have the highest drop-out rates when it comes to education and we are usually on the lowest end of the pay scales and have the highest rates of unemployment. In all three areas, healthcare, education and the economy, Obama, though not specifically targeting the African-American community, has done a lot to help African Americans.”
Steven Bradley, who owns an insurance company, agrees. But he believes America still has a lot of work to do to solve deep-rooted racial problems. He says: “I don’t think having a black president has improved race relations. In a city like Philadelphia the distribution of wealth hasn’t changed since 2008. Unemployment and high school drop-out rates are still twice as high for African Americans. Until these issues are addressed we won’t have dramatic change.”
You don’t have to look far in Philadelphia to find Obama supporters but his Republican challenger Mitt Romney has fans in the city too. They include the Romney campaign’s most generous financial backer over the past quarter: the Rothman Institute, a chain of orthopaedic clinics, whose doctors have contributed a total of $751,000 (£470,000) to Romney’s coffers.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of all the polls shows Romney leading Obama nationwide by 47.6 per cent to 46.9 per cent. It’s a narrow lead and one the Obama campaign is working hard to overcome. Obama, energised after a strong performance in the second televised presidential debate last week, drew cheers at a campaign stop on Friday when he portrayed the Republican as a “throwback to the 1950s” who would restrict women’s rights, favour the wealthy and hurt ordinary Americans.
Attempting to seize the advantage on economic issues ahead of tomorrow’s third and final presidential debate, Obama told supporters: “Four years after the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, we’re moving forward again.’’ He cited rising home values, the decline in the unemployment rate from 10 to 7.8 per cent and steady growth in the stock market as signs that his policies were working.
At a rally in Florida, Romney derided his opponent’s re-election effort, saying that Obama has “no agenda” to take the US forward, adding that the president was part of an “incredible shrinking campaign”.
Pennsylvania, once a manufacturing giant with thriving oil and steel industries, is scarred by long-term economic decline. The Democratic political consultant James Carville famously described it as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between”. Democrats dominate in the industrial cities in the east and west, while Republicans score well in the rural heartland.
The state was leaning strongly towards Obama but the race for its 20 electoral college votes has tightened since the first presidential debate, as male voters, white Catholics and blue collar workers have flocked to the Romney camp.
Acutely aware that support for their candidate is declining in Pennsylvania, the Obama campaign has been flooding the airwaves with adverts and mobilising its formidable ground operation. At weekends, Democratic activists and volunteers from New York and New Jersey are bussed into Philadelphia and other cities to knock on doors and make telephone calls, drumming up support for Obama.
Pastor Kevin Johnson of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in northern Philadelphia knows more about the troubles of the city’s population than most. The church has 2,000 members, has established its own community bank, and runs regular job fairs, along with a soup kitchen and outreach programme, “From surviving to thriving”, helping struggling members of the community get back on their feet.
Johnson uses a boxing analogy to sum up the 2012 presidential election. “Obama is facing a 12-round fight. He could have had a knockout in round two or three if he’d done well in the first debate. Instead it’s going to go all the way to the 12th round.”
Black clergy play a crucial role in getting people to turn out and vote in communities like this. Regardless of their political views, Johnson says he feels a responsibility to encourage his congregation to go to the polls.
Whatever happens on 6 November, Johnson believes Obama’s presidency has changed black America forever: “Any time you hear ‘hail the chief’ said to a black man, that’s change. To go from, during segregation and slavery, being called ‘boy’ to a black man now being called Mr President, that’s dramatic change.”
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