By MARSHA MERCER
During the 2008 presidential campaign, supporters of Barack Obama rarely mentioned race when they talked about their favorite candidate.
It was as though everybody -- black, white and brown -- agreed it was impossible even to acknowledge race without being thought a racist, so it was better to keep quiet. Democrat Obama and Republican John McCain steered away from race a campaign issue, and some commentators wondered if we’d entered an era of post-racial politics.
Election Day exit polls shouted a significant racial voting gap. McCain won among white voters by a 12-point margin, 55 percent to 43 percent, while Obama took 95 percent of the black vote.
Polls indicate that the race schism has widened since then. In hypothetical matchups between Obama and Republican contenders in the 2012 contest, black voters overwhelmingly support Obama, who has lost ground with white voters and independents.
If Obama’s triumph failed to make us a color-blind nation, it may have succeeded in making it easier to talk about race.
“Not only are we for Barack Obama because he’s a black man -- I’m proud of that -- but I’m also proud of America for electing a black man,” Dr. Brenda C. Williams, a black physician and activist in Sumter, S.C., told me this week.
I had called Dr. Williams, who is 59 and a child of the segregated South, on another subject, but she spoke easily about how race affects her politics. She used to vote Republican, she said, explaining her reverse psychology: “I figured if we get Republicans in there, they’re not going to do crap for black people. They never have and they never will. We will have to get up and help ourselves.”
She and her physician husband, Dr. Joe Williams, opened their medical practice in Sumter in 1982 and later founded a nonprofit anti-poverty organization, The Family Unit Inc., which was originally aimed at encouraging African-American couples to marry and form families. And, by the way, she said proudly, she hasn’t taken a dime in federal grants.
Williams sees doctoring as more than taking care of physical ailments. She looks at the whole person and even registers her patients to vote. When candidate Obama came along, Williams was impressed with his background as a community organizer and his commitment to helping the poor. During the 2008 campaign, she played videos of Obama’s speeches in her waiting room and expanded her voter registration drives to trailer parks and jails.
As Obama seeks re-election, unemployment rate among blacks is a devastating 16 percent, twice the rate for whites and far above the national rate of 9.1 percent.
Some prominent blacks blame the president for not doing more. Princeton professor Cornel West called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” West and talk show host and author Tavis Smiley went on a poverty tour to draw attention to rising poverty and joblessness.
Obama is “not perfect,” Brenda Williams concedes. “Nobody comes close to being perfect.”
But when black registered voters were asked earlier this month whether they preferred Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their next president, 95 percent picked Obama.
Among white registered voters, Romney beat out Obama by 20 points, 58 percent to 38 percent, according to the Pew Research Center poll. Exit polls in 2008 found that Obama benefited from an 8 point lead over McCain among independent voters, but Romney held a 13-point lead over Obama among independents in the latest Pew poll.
“I don’t think his white supporters will come out as fervently as before,” Williams predicted. “They expected more out of him than they would have expected of a white person.”
The poll numbers suggest that Obama will need black voters more than he did last time, and his challenge will be turning them out. When he tried to gin up enthusiasm last month, some blacks objected to his scolding tone.
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” Obama said at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner. “Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying.”
His re-election likely will depend on the dedication of people like Williams, who introduced Obama at a rally in Sumter before the primary in January 2008. Before they went onstage, Obama bent down and whispered in Williams’ ear.
“Pray for me,” he said. “Pray for my family.”
“Oh, we have you covered,” Dr. Brenda Williams assured Barack Obama. “We definitely have you covered.”
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.