By Te-Erika Patterson
HOUSTON DEFENDER, March 11, 2007
Presidential candidate Barack Obama is making a concerted effort to cultivate a relationship with the Black community based on his recent actions. Obama conducted his first teleconference with members of the Black Press followed by his appearance in Selma, Alabama commemorating Bloody Sunday.
During his speech at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church, Obama connected with the African-American audience citing the historical legacy which allows him to run for president.
“It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois senate and ultimately in the United States senate. It is because they marched that I stand before you here today,” said Obama to the crowd.
Across the street, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed another Alabama church congregation which indicated the importance both candidates place on attracting African-American voters. Earlier in the week, Obama took a major step in generating a stronger connection with the Black community by discussing with members of the Black Press a range of topics: targeting young voters, strengthening relationships between parents and the school system, introducing a bill protecting the voting process, re-igniting the Civil Rights movement and demanding relief efforts for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
Despite serving eight years in the Illinois State Senate and two years in the United States Senate, Obama’s political resume has been heavily scrutinized. However, his charisma and propensity to unite America by identifying universal needs has propelled him in the polls, closing in on frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
During the conversation with the reporters and publishers of the Black Press, Obama expressed a need to continue the dialogue and made several poignant comments about key topics.
Attracting Young Voters
“The younger generation has to be engaged and brought into the process of deciding what it is that they care most about,” Obama said as he pledged to establish chapters of “Students for Barack Obama’ on every historically Black college campus in an effort to allow students to help shape their agenda. According to Obama, young constituents have expressed concerns about our foreign policy towards Africa and friction surrounding the war in Iraq as well as its huge budget. The freshman senator then pointed to the economic anxiety of the younger generation.
“What I have heard from talking to young people is that they are anxious about their economic futures. [They are concerned about] whether or not they are going to be able to afford a college education, whether or not they will be able to deal with the incredible crunch of student loans that many are dealing with,” stated Obama. “There are a lot of young people out there who don’t even go to college at all because they either hadn’t gotten a high school diploma or they had not been encouraged to go. To me, the most important thing that we have to work with the young people on is creating a career path for them and having the educational structures in place that will support those career paths [as well] as making sure they can finance college and making sure that they have access to career opportunities.”
Regulating Voting Procedures
After the hoopla in Florida and other states following recent elections, Black voters experienced an insurmountable number of incidents where they were turned away from the polls causing community concern. Obama indicated that he is taking a proactive role to assure that the votes of African-Americans are not tampered with and are counted.
“We have a bill right now that I introduced that we helped shape with the Civil Rights Organizations, the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and other organizations that will make deceptive voting practices a felony,” stated Obama. “Many of you have reported on some of the nonsense that’s gone on during previous elections. Folks getting phone calls saying their polling place has been moved when it hasn’t been. Or pamphlets being circulated saying that if you’ve got a parking ticket and you try to vote you will be committing a crime. [All of these are] mechanisms to discourage people from voting. And what we basically say is, ‘that’s a felony and you will be fined or you will be jailed if you engage in that kind of… activity.’”
Re-Igniting the Civil Rights Movement
When asked about “Bloody Sunday” and its modern day significance, the Illinois Senator emphasized the need for today’s generation to continue the fight, drawing an analogy from the Bible. Citing economic equality as a major goal, Obama affirmed that African-Americans must take personal responsibility if change is going to occur.
“I think that we are the Joshua Generation,” Senator Obama asserted. “We are that next generation that is supposed to follow through on what Moses [set into place]. What that means is we have to keep on fighting for some of the hard won rights that are always in danger of being [taken away]. That means we have to make sure that our voting rights are protected. We have to have significant civil rights enforcement. We’ve had a civil rights division that has not been attentive to discrimination claims. [They] haven’t even tried to prosecute discrimination claims other than prosecuting universities for setting up affirmative action programs.”
Senator Obama added, “When I’m president that’s one thing I will promise is a serious enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws that are on the books. I think the most important thing that we have to do now is to achieve economic equality. That involves a combination of putting pressure on all our institutions, whether it’s the school system or the university system or corporate America, to be inclusive and to open up doors and opportunities to those who are locked out.”
Alluding to the importance of personal involvement, Senator Obama stated, “Internally we’ve got to make sure that we are applying ourselves in terms of striving for the kind of excellence that is necessary to compete in this new economy. Our schools need more money but we also need to make sure that our kids are working hard, turning off the TV and doing their homework [and] that we are meeting with their teachers and making sure that they have high standards in the schools where they are being taught. It’s a combination of our own efforts and pressure on the larger society to make sure that they are acting in a just and equitable way that I think ultimately is going to lead us to cross that bridge.”
Disaster aid for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina
Recently the Senate debated the issue of whether to waive the Stafford Act related to Louisiana’s rebuilding efforts. The Stafford Act is a United States federal law designed to bring an orderly and systemic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens. Obama was outraged at his colleague’s response to waive the act.
“We had those hearings just about two or three weeks ago, and I could not for the life of me understand why they would waive the Stafford Act rule for Manhattan, they would waive it for Florida after hurricane Andrew but they wouldn't waive it for the single biggest natural catastrophe in our history," stated Obama. “I’ve already started working with [United States Senator] Mary Landrieu to make sure that we have legislation that says it's time to waive that. We can't expect New Orleans to come up with a billion dollars to match what's needed to rebuild when they need that money to actually provide assistance to the folks on the ground.”
Targeting the Black Vote
Because Obama is racially mixed, concerns have been raised during the campaign about ‘his Blackness’. Supporters consider his candidacy as an indication of progress in race relations in this country. When The Defender asked, “Do you plan to aggressively target the Black vote and if so, have you developed a plan that will not polarize your white supporters?,” Obama responded confidently.
“We will absolutely target the African-American vote because I think that one of the promises of this campaign is to re-energize the African-American vote,” Obama said. “The best way I think to do it is to make sure we do an outreach to the outlets like the African American press. I will make sure that any rallies or political events that we do in any city targets a lot of our community.”
“In terms of issues, I think that a lot of the issues that we are going to be talking about are issues that everybody is concerned about. Everyone is concerned about a healthcare system that is broken,” continued Obama. “Everybody is concerned about Iraq. Everyone is concerned about an education system that is failing too many of our kids. But, one thing that I do anticipate spending more time on than maybe some other candidates is ‘What do we need in terms of an urban agenda?’ I think that we will be attentive to some of the voting rights issues and civil rights issues that have not been addressed over the last 6 years.”