A new study from Washington University in St. Louis finds that under Obama, many black Americans feel less free than whites when it comes to political participation.
From 2005 to 2011, only 45 percent of blacks said they believed the government would allow them to make a public speech, while 67 percent of whites believed they could, the study found.
The study found that while the election of Obama initially boosted feelings of political empowerment among black Americans, those sentiments significantly faded in the years that followed—especially among conservative and religious blacks.
These two groups make up a large segment of the black population, with 56 percent of blacks identifying as “born again,” and 39 percent of blacks as “somewhat conservative,” according to the study.
“First we saw the ’empowerment effect,’ the boost that happens when a member of your group gets elected to an important political position,” says study author James L. Gibson, a professor of government and African-American studies at Washington University. Gibson’s findings are based on national surveys conducted between 2005 and 2011.
In 2009, the year after Obama was elected, 71 percent of blacks reported feeling as free to speak one’s mind as they used to.
“But then perceptions of political freedom deteriorated among conservative and religious blacks,” says Gibson. By 2011, the percentage of blacks who felt as free to speak their mind had dropped to 56 percent, back to pre-Obama levels. (White Americans also reported feeling less free to speak one’s mind under Obama, but the decline was far less than among blacks).
In part, says Gibson, this can be attributed to “ideological polarization.” That split may have begun when Obama dismissed Pennsylvania voters in 2008 who “cling to guns or religion.” But Gibson says many conservative and religions blacks likely believed when Obama was first elected that he would protect their interests as president. “Race produces a level of trust and confidence that one is on your side,” he says.
Over time, that confidence eroded. Gibson cites the contraception debate between the White House and some religious leaders that erupted last year. Black Americans, he notes, are traditionally conservative on social issues.
Another schism may have centered on gay marriage. The Democratic-leaning Coalition of African-American Pastors, for example, recently said they felt “marginalized” and “ignored” by Obama’s seemingly sudden support for same-sex marriage.
Religious fundamentalists and conservative blacks, Gibson says, “have seen their efforts to participate in public life [under Obama] being thwarted over and over and over again.”
Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report.