Some black voters may be none too happy with President Obama for shielding some 800,000 working-age illegal immigrants from deportation, seeing them as competition for scarce jobs. But black activists and political scientists quibble over just how much that decision, announced Friday, will hurt the president among African-Americans in his bid for reelection.
The calculus of the Obama campaign, clearly, was that the new policy would be a net gain: that the president would pick up many more votes in the Latino community than he would lose in the African-American community. Mr. Obama's action means that undocumented young adults who were brought to the United States by their families when they were minors, and who are in good standing, can remain in the US and will qualify for two-year work permits, which are renewable.
The work permits are what may prove to be controversial in the black community, where teen unemployment is 38.2 percent, says Washington attorney Cherylen Harley LeBon of Project 21, a national group representing conservative African-Americans. Some black voters, she suggests, may not be willing to give Obama a pass on that.
“In this economy, blacks are circling the wagons and looking at what will impact their own families,” says Ms. LeBon. Their focus going into an election year “is on kitchen-table issues." This is a bottom-line issue, “with blacks asking, 'How will this affect my ability to put food on the table?' "
Presidential scholar Charles Dunn agrees. Because Latino and African-American voters have different policy objectives on immigration, the president’s “efforts to woo the one hurt him with the other,” he says via e-mail.
Obama's relaxation of deportation rules for certain young Latinos undercuts his efforts to reenergize his most important and vital constituency: African-Americans, he adds. They “feel threatened by the loss of jobs to Latinos.”
Obama won some 95 percent of the black vote in 2008. To win in 2012, he needs to be in that range again, and he likewise needs Latino voters to turn out for him in considerable numbers.
Many social scientists do not expect that black voters will leave Obama's fold – or sit out the election – simply because he extended a hand to a subset of young illegal immigrants.
"I do not believe this will be a problem for Obama in the election among blacks, since African-Americans are usually much more supportive of social justice for others, since they have been the victims so often of unfair rules and clear discrimination,” says Lori Brown, associate professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., via e-mail. “Even though many leaders or economists can see this could have a negative impact on blacks when competing for low-wage jobs,” she says, “this policy change is probably going to be seen as right.”
Beyond that, she notes, Obama’s arguments when he announced the new policy are allied with the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and that of many black church leaders. “I would also argue that African-Americans are less likely than others, when hearing about new policies to ask, 'How will this affect me?' and are more likely to say, 'This is fair.' "
Blacks have a good understanding that a strong immigrant community supports broad-based work opportunities, says Ravi Perry, director of ethnic studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "There have always been some in the black and Hispanic communities who have felt they are in competition for jobs,” he says, but “I don’t see this eroding significant support for Obama in November.”
However, LeBon suggests that more basic issues will drive at least some black voters during such a difficult economic time. “They do not have the luxury of worrying about being inclusive,” she says.
Moreover, the policy shift on immigration is the second recent Obama decision that won't sit well with some African-Americans, says Professor Dunn. The first: gay marriage.
Obama’s decision to publicly announce support for gay marriage “has offended both African-American and Latino voters, who generally favor traditional marriage,” he says. African-American pastors of large churches have voiced discontent with the president's position, he says, and the Roman Catholic Church's adamant opposition hurts him with Latino voters, many of whom are Catholic, as well.
But the president is seen as a leader in the African-American community, and that standing will help him, says Natalie Davis, professor of political science at Birmingham Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. When Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, “comments were raised about backlash inside the black community that blacks would lose their enthusiasm because traditional marriage is part of the black culture.” Yet afterward, “numerous polls reported that support of gay marriage went up in the black community."
The same dynamic is likely on immigration reform. "He has a leadership role in the community," says Professor Davis, "and I seriously doubt that this will hurt him."