The Curious, Complex Relationship Between President Obama And The Black Community
You were all set to give him a piece of your mind; you were ready to let him know, finally, that you have had it with his seeming indifference and neglect of your needs and then … it happened. You started to receive those subtle-as-a-sledgehammer emails telling you that he lied to you about who he really is, where he’s really from and what he really believes.
In the heat of passionate protection, all your objections and protestations melt away. He is your guy and you had to defend him against all the lies and distortions; you are going to stick it out and stand by your man.
This writer isn’t speaking about a steamy scenario from an episode of your favorite soap opera, nor is a tawdry tidbit from any number of trashy daytime talk shows. I speak of the complex and curious relationship between President Obama and the American black community.
To be clear, no president in the history of the United States of America has faced more animus, vitriol and racism than Barack Obama. No president has been as consistently framed and believed to be, not only un-American, but, at times, as something other than human.
I have wrestled with racism in my lifetime as well, but there is no way getting past the scope, scale and magnitude of what the president has gone through while, oh, by the way, trying to run a country. So I get the defensiveness of the black community as a whole when it comes to Barack Obama.
And yet, with all that being said, none of those realities excuse him from giving the proper attention to the needs and anxieties of a community that has been harder hit by the economic crash. Nor does it mean that African-Americans should abdicate their responsibility to speak truth to power, even if that power happens to be the first black president.
Black unemployment and the racial wealth gap
African-American unemployment under President Obama has remained high and has stayed stubbornly and painfully persistent. Although U.S. employers added 171,000 jobs in October and hiring was stronger over the previous two months than first thought, black unemployment rose from 13.4 to 14.3 percent, and African-American teen joblessness rose to a remarkable high of 40.5 percent.
According to a report released earlier this year by the Bipartisan Policy Center, in 2010, African-American homeownership rates dropped to pre-1990 levels. Blacks owned homes at a rate of 44.3 percent in 2010, less than two-thirds the rate at which whites owned homes. That same rate inched higher to 45.1 percent in 2011, but whites owned homes at the far greater rate of 73.7 percent, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.
That same report, released in April, shows more dismal economic conditions in the African-American community. It found that from 2009 through 2011, black minimum wage workers swelled 16.6 percent, while whites had only 5.2 percent more minimum wage workers.
Not only, then, has there been a disproportionate increase in the number of African-Americans who are in the unemployment line, but there is also a greater number of blacks working for minimum wage.
Obama’s indifference to black issues
A January 2010 Pew survey revealed huge optimism. The percentage of black Americans who thought blacks were better off than they were five years before had almost doubled since 2007. There were also significant increases in the percentages who believed the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks was decreasing.
Nevertheless, that rather rosy outlook betrays the facts as they actually are.
Yes, the president was handed a horrible mess and we can point to policies that had been forwarded decades before he even took office to explain a great deal of what has taken place economically in this country. Nevertheless, what specific policies has he outlined to address the very specific issue of black unemployment?
What the 2010 Pew survey did not capture, nonetheless, is a growing sentiment among blacks that the president — when it comes to black issues — has been rather mute, and when he actually does touch on race as it pertains to the black community or speaks to a predominantly black audience, it is to tell blacks to take more responsibility for themselves.
Yet, when it came to the issue of gays in the military, he had a specific response by abolishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Further, when it came to the very specific issue of immigration reform which, by and large, benefitted Hispanics, the president had a specific policy response in the form of an executive order that allows those who entered the country illegally as children to remain and work without fear of deportation for at least two years.
This writer is not suggesting that those measures should not have been taken, but for a president who seems hesitant in discussing problems and concerns that have a greater bearing on the African-American community, it is rather curious that the same fear of stigma does not appear to arise when it comes to addressing the concerns of other groups.
Will African-American women and families benefit from the Lilly Ledbetter Act? Yes, they will. Will there be some in the black community who will receive much needed help as a result of Obamacare? Yes, without a doubt.
But those policies should never be viewed as a down payment for the silence of the black community on other issues such as the prison industrial complex, education, gun violence and a more just foreign policy, to name a few.
The silence of black dissent and leadership
Emanuel Cleaver, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, admitted (recently) that African-American members of Congress hold Obama to a lower standard because the president is black. Pointing to the historic level of African-American unemployment, Cleaver said, “If we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House.” If, for example, Hillary Clinton sat in the Oval Office, Cleaver would tell her, “My sister, I love you, but this has got to go.”
He went on to further say, that the president “knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn’t to someone white.” What Emmanuel Cleaver and the members of the CBC have clearly forgotten is that they are there to represent their (mostly black) constituents even if it conflicts with the president’s agenda.
Further, it is their responsibility, and it is political malpractice to do otherwise, to make sure the presidential and congressional agenda includes the needs of those they represent. That is Democracy 101, and it should not surprise the members of the Congressional Black Caucus if there is a lack of trust in their leadership when they fail to do so.
Blacks have been told, by the likes of Al Sharpton and others, that to pressure the president into addressing the issues of particular concern to the African-American community is negative (yeah … like actual American citizens who have the right to advocate for themselves) because it would embolden right-wing attacks on projects black people need — in other words, black dissent and advocacy might remind those in power with bigoted motivations that our president is indeed, well … black.
This cannot be considered a serious or just rationale for how blacks in this country vote or hold their elected officials at any level accountable. One should never allow their vote to be viewed as a blank check where nothing is expected in return. It is not enough to vote for what a candidate symbolizes, but for what their election brings into fruition.
Angela Davis said, just before Obama’s 2008 nomination, “… we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder ….There’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”
At the end of the day, President Obama should have more targeted policies and programs for blacks, not because they are black, but for the same reason an ER doctor attends to a gunshot victim who is bleeding profusely before someone who has stubbed their toe: Because they are suffering the most.
This election day, let us, finally, understand how the process works. The election of a candidate is not the end, but the beginning. The real work of actually governing and implementing policy begins for the candidate-elect and the real task of holding them accountable to governing and implementing policy as they should by us, we the people, begins as well.
Yes, by all means understand and even sympathize with the president when he is being targeted by some of the most vile and bigoted vitriol that any political figure has ever faced, but never let that understanding and sympathy be a justification for his ignoring or indifference to the host of challenges that the black community faces.
There will be some who view this writing as an endorsement of the other party’s candidate, which would be a big mistake because it most assuredly is not. What it is, however, is a declaration of what should not have to be declared and it is this: My vote should not be taken for granted … it should have to be earned.
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