Before giving his national address on Syria — one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency — Barack Obama barnstormed six major cable networks. Yet major networks of color weren’t on the list. Black and Latino outlets such as BET, TVOne and Univision wouldn’t get an opportunity to interview the first president of color on a diplomatic imbroglio many observers were comparing to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But the decision to cold shoulder Black media on Syria underscores a tense subtext to the issue. It further exposes a much more frayed and complicated relationship between the president and his most loyal political base: African Americans. While Black voters have, clearly, always been the key to Obama’s political rise and subsequent re-election, their response to his sudden preoccupation with Syria is pointedly chilled. That represents a marked departure from the past when African Americans would typically defend Obama out of a fiercely loyal, and somewhat obligatory, cultural association. Yet, recent polls offer a new take on that relationship, as Black America questions the president’s investment in Syria at the expense of more pressing concerns at home.
When a Washington Post/ABC News poll asked about public support for a U.S. strike against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, 56 percent of African Americans were opposed. Another Pew Research Center survey discovered similar numbers, with only 22 percent of African Americans favoring a limited air and cruise missile strike.
A YouGov/Economist poll found similar attitudes. Compared to whites and Latinos, Blacks were the least likely demographic to support no-fly zones and airstrikes. When asked about evacuating refugees and sending humanitarian aid, only 21 percent and 37 percent supported such actions – compared to 36 percent and 43 percent for whites, and a whopping 40 percent and 58 percent of Hispanics supporting those same policies.
Tension was also felt in Washington as Black legislators, for the most part, appeared unwilling to offer any real backing to the president once he sought Congressional approval. A recent report in Foreign Policy Magazine caught a request from Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for members to “limit public comment,” suggesting the White House was putting pressure on Black members prior to what was evolving into an embarrassing House vote for the president.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), one of the more senior CBC members on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, eagerly issued a statement following the president’s Tuesday night speech. “His request that Congress postpone a vote on the authorization of the use of force is the wise thing to do in the interests of the United States and the global community. The diplomatic openings that have developed must be given a chance to succeed.”
Where the CBC stands on Syria is more than likely a reflection of where most of their Black constituents stand on the issue. With most caucus members representing majority African American and urban districts, lawmakers would rather not take their chances on this one.
“Public opinion data has shown for a long time that blacks tend to be less supportive of foreign intervention,” explains Emory University’s Dr. Andra Gillespie. “So it is not surprising that they would not support the president on Syria.”
“I’m not certain that the Black electorate is rejecting Obama’s diplomatic efforts,” offers Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism. “I suspect that, like the rest of the population, they were rejecting the direct military action.”
Dr. Marvin King, a political science and African American studies professor at the University of Mississippi, suspects African Americans have very little patience with the president’s attention projected overseas during his second term. Black voters see a need to have their issues spotlighted and addressed, rather than become distracted by civil war in a distant country.
“Historically, for all second term presidents, they reach a point where by the time they get to the last term, support from their base wears thin,” explains King. “People are ready for something different.”
“But, there has long been a desire among African Americans for a Marshall Plan on urban poverty and issues. And, now in his second term, they are asking him: where is it? No one asked you to get involved in Syria, so why are you in it?”
Peniel Joseph, founding director of Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, agrees. “The Black community is tired of wars of choice after more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq,” says Joseph. “The group that requires economic opportunity in the form of jobs, access to capital to open small businesses, and educational training for the new knowledge industries are African Americans.”
“Black people want to see more nation-building at home, something President Obama has repeatedly promised, but has failed to deliver in the transformative manner the times require.”
Hiram College political scientist Jason Johnson believes it’s much less complex than that. “It’s really simple: Black people are tired of war. It really has nothing to do whatsoever with Barack Obama.”
“You have a situation here where George Bush is like a really bad ex-husband,” quips Johnson. “He ruined everyone’s ability to trust the president when it comes to war.”
But Johnson adds that other practical considerations come into play when African Americans consider the consequences of military action in Syria — regardless of any effort to explain it as “limited.” Many Black men and women view the military as a pathway to middle class stability as the armed forces are used to pay for college expenses, family healthcare and future financial support. Hence, a disproportionately large number of African Americans typically find themselves on the front line when hostilities break out.
“And Black people just don’t understand why Syria is important,” argues Johnson. “They just don’t see the relation to gas prices, or rent, or how this tackles unemployment.”