In early 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the Georgia politician Henry Benning appealed to the Virginia Secession Convention to join the Confederate cause. In making his case, he denounced the “Black Republican party” of President Abraham Lincoln, arguing that his election portended “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” The predicted envelopment surely took longer than he thought, but by 2008, Benning looked like Nostradamus. After the black governors, the black legislators, the integrated juries, Benning’s great phantom—“black everything”—took human form in the country’s 44th president, Barack Obama.
A sober observer could have dismissed Obama’s election in 2008 as an anomaly rather than a sea change. As the first black presidential nominee, Obama naturally benefited from record turnout among African Americans—turnout that might not be sustainable in future elections. He also benefited from an opposition that was saddled with two wars, an unpopular incumbent, and an economy in free fall. In black communities, there was a distinct awareness of the situation: if white folks are willing to hand over the country to a black man, then we must really be in bad shape.
Entering the 2012 election, Obama was no longer a talented rookie; he was the captain of the football team, with a record vulnerable to interpretation, and to attack. The economy was still sluggish. American troops were still being shot in Afghanistan. His base seemed depressed. And the most-loyal members of that base, African Americans, were facing an array of “voter ID” laws that had—what a coincidence—bloomed following his election.