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Originally published Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 4:15 PM

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Bob Herbert / Syndicated columnist

Barack Obama and Adrian Fenty: black leaders and the base they neglect

"Post-racial" politicians such as President Obama can end up being so worried about losing the support of whites that they distance themselves from their own African-American base, writes columnist Bob Herbert. This is a no-win situation — for the politicians and for the blacks who put their hopes and faith in them.

Syndicated columnist

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it was striking, nevertheless.

The mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, one of the so-called post-racial black leaders, suffered a humiliating defeat in his bid for re-election last week when African-American voters deserted him in droves. The very same week, President Barack Obama, the most prominent of the so-called post-racial types, was moving aggressively to shore up his support among black voters.

Obama, who usually goes out of his way to avoid overtly racial comments and appeals, made an impassioned plea during a fiery speech Saturday night at a black-tie event sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. "I need everybody here," he said, "to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops. And tell them we've got more work to do."

It's no secret that the president is in trouble politically, and that Democrats in Congress are fighting desperately to hold on to their majorities. But much less attention has been given to the level of disenchantment among black voters, who have been hammered disproportionately by the recession and largely taken for granted by the Democratic Party. That disappointment is likely to translate into lower turnout among blacks this fall.

The idea that we had moved into some kind of post-racial era was always a ridiculous notion. Attitudes have undoubtedly changed for the better over the past half-century, and young people as a whole are less hung up on race than their elders. But race is still a very big deal in the United States, which is precisely why black leaders like Fenty and Obama try so hard to behave as though they are governing in some sort of pristine civic environment in which the very idea of race has been erased.

These allegedly post-racial politicians can end up being so worried about losing the support of whites that they distance themselves from their own African-American base. This is a no-win situation — for the politicians and for the blacks who put their hopes and faith in them.

Fenty was cheered by whites for bringing in the coldblooded Michelle Rhee as schools chancellor. She attacked D.C.'s admittedly failing school system with an unseemly ferocity and seemed to take great delight in doing it. Hundreds of teachers were fired and concerns raised by parents about Rhee's take-no-prisoners approach were ignored. It was disrespectful.

Blacks responded last week by voting overwhelmingly for Fenty's opponent, Vincent Gray, who is also black. This blowback undermined whatever Rhee and Fenty had hoped to achieve. Thanks to their ham-handed approach to governing and disregard of the sensibilities of their constituents, both of them will soon be gone. But the children they claimed to care so much about will still be locked in a lousy school system.

Black voters across the country are not nearly as discontented with Obama as blacks in Washington were with Fenty. But neither do they have the same enthusiasm that they had in the historic 2008 election.

Obama has seldom addressed black concerns directly, although many of his initiatives have benefited blacks. What has taken a toll is the perception that the president has consistently seemed more concerned about the needs and interests of those who are already well off, who are hostile to policies that would help working people and ethnic minorities, and who in many cases would like nothing better than to see Obama fail.

Most blacks are reluctant to publicly express their concerns about the president because they are so outraged by the blatantly unfair and often racist attacks against him from the political right. But many blacks are unhappy that Obama hasn't been more forceful in the fight to create jobs. And there is disappointment over the dearth of black faces in high-profile posts in the administration.

There is real danger here for black people. In many cases, because of an excess of caution, policies that would help people in need are never even seriously considered, much less implemented. Forces that are hostile to blacks are not aggressively confronted, which, of course, empowers them. Perhaps more important, when you have to tiptoe around absolutely anything that has to do with blacks, it can leave the insidious impression that there is, in fact, something wrong with being black, something to be ashamed of.

We need to be careful not to corrode the joy and pride felt by blacks in the triumphs of African-American leaders.

Bob Herbert is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

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