PHILADELPHIA – Eight years after President Barack Obama made history and won his party’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Denver, African-American voters at the convention in Philadelphia are reflecting on what that victory has meant for them and whether Hillary Clinton– a pioneer on the gender frontier –will be able to pick up where he left off.
African-American delegates who shared their experiences with TPM in Philly this week were grappling with the historic and political impact of Obama’s presidency. They recounted how in some ways Obama had fought arduously despite a mostly GOP-controlled Congress: passing his signature health care law, speaking up about criminal justice reform, pushing to reduce gun violence and engaging the country in tough conversations about race from the White House when the weight of it all seemed to be too much. But some also candidly expressed frustration that the president had at times seemed reluctant, or simply been unable, to take up their mantle because of the intense political scrutiny.
“I wanted more, but I understood the parameters in which he had to work,” said Maryland delegate Merrick Moses. “He is the president of the entire United States.”
Many of the delegates TPM interviewed saw Clinton as having the opportunity to continue Obama’s legacy, and in especially poignant exchanges some expressed the hope that Clinton’s own race might enable her to reach audiences Obama couldn’t in a country that seemed to be polarized.
“With Hillary, maybe it will seem like everybody is included,” said Martese Chism, a delegate from Illinois. “When Obama spoke on black issues they would say he was just a black president.”
When Obama took the stage Wednesday night and enjoyed a victory lap of sorts, to the kind of applause and cheers a second term President of any race doesn’t always receive, it represented the end of a historic road.
“President Obama has done a fine job given the circumstances. He has really tried to balance the act. Our country could be cruel at times,” said Dale Jackson, a union worker who came from Chicago to Philadelphia to see Obama, but was not a delegate. “There was always a tendency to say that he just felt a certain way because he was black.”
At the end of Obama’s tenure racial tensions seem to be rawer than ever. Videos of black men being shot by police circulate on the internet, and the targeted police deaths in Dallas and Baton Rouge by African American assailants adds a grim new dimension to the violence.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has sought to balance the weight of his historic presidency and his desire to speak out against discrimination with the political realities of not wanting to push too hard or too fast.
“He has definitely lived up to his promise. He said he was going to be
the president for all people and I definitely think he has lived up to
that,” said Antonio Hayes, a Maryland delegate from Baltimore and
state legislator who represents the same district where Freddie
Gray was killed. “There are always going to be those critics out in the
community who say he hasn’t done enough.”
Whenever Obama has spoken up – whether it was how his son would have resembled Trayvon Martin or how he, too, has experienced a person crossing the street to avoid encountering a black man– conservatives have criticized him and charged him for inciting racial tensions.
“That wasn’t Obama’s fault. It’s the Tea Party. It’s Donald Trump. It’s the blatant stuff. When you have a group of people in Congress who deliberately said before he actually started his first day that they would actually block any of the
bills he put forth and they had never done that to anybody else and they only do that for an African American man, that is racist,” said Diana Carpenter-Madoshi, a delegate from California.
On Tuesday night on the convention floor – the same night Clinton officially clinched the nomination–nine women on Democratic National Convention stage wore red flowers on their lapels to commemorate their children who had been killed by police or gun violence.
“So many of our children gone but not forgotten. I’m here with Hillary Clinton because she is a leader and a mother who will say our children’s names,” Geneva Reed-Veal said as she reflected on the death of her daughter Sandra Bland, who had died in police custody. “Hillary knows that when a young black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss. It is a national loss. It is a loss that diminishes all of us.”
The Mothers of the Movement have met with and campaigned for Clinton, but for African-American delegates in the audience Tuesday– the mothers represented outreach and a promise Clinton was making to listen to a community she may not be represent, but will try to understand. As many African-American delegates who supported Sanders had pointed out this week, Clinton supported a crime bill in the 1990s many feel targeted the African-American community. But Clinton, they noted, seemed to be making inroads two decades later.
“I believe that the mothers for the movement with hold her feet to the fire,” said Chism, who came to the convention supporting Bernie Sanders. “I believe she will address our issues.”
Carolyn Fowler, a delegate from California, said she believes Clinton has been preparing for the chance to reach out to a diverse coalition for decades.
“I think people don’t give her credit for a lot of things that she has exposed herself to deliberately so she’d have those experiences to bring forth,” Fowler said. “I feel confident that she will address it and I don’t think she is going to try to do it single handedly either. I think she is good at taking counsel.”