In America, there are essentially two types of power: Political power and economic power. African Americans, relatively speaking, have always had very little of both. What’s worse is that we tend to squander the little bit of power we have by giving it away to any sweet-talking candidate who makes us feel good. Obama has been that candidate, not because he is a “sell-out” or a “swindler”; but because he is a politician.
Obama’s apparent lack of desire to create targeted policies for African Americans is driven by the fact that we “gave it up” without critically analyzing or challenging his commitment to our issues. No other candidate could have gotten away with this. Our commitment to political style over substance is similar to materialistic distractions toward “blinging, balling, flossing and shining” which lead many of us into bankruptcy. I say this as a supporter of Obama, but also as a man who’d like to see him do more.
I watched President Obama give one of the most uncomfortable press conferences he’s ever had to deliver to the American people. The honeymoon is slowly ending, and “the chosen one” is now being forced to answer to angry Americans looking to stab their pitchforks into whatever politician they can find. President Obama has been spared this anger, in large part because he has presented himself as the man who can guide the country out of this crisis.
I still believe he can but the kryptonite is taking effect. President Obama’s unemployment forecasts have gone from “nothing above 8%” to “surely above 10%”. African Americans are even more concerned about the pinch, as our unemployment rates are expected to rise as high as 20% by the end of the year. The black family is additionally threatened by tangential issues such as mass incarceration, which serve to further undermine our social infrastructure during these difficult economic times.
When asked about the black unemployment issue by American Radio Network’s April Ryan, Obama had to do a difficult dance. In light of the country’s impatience, this was no time for America’s first black president to actually be a black president. Obama took the question in stride, explaining that the best thing he can do for black people is to help the entire economy. He also succumbed to the fact that African American unemployment is traditionally much higher – nearly double – that of whites.
The problem for President Obama is that his response to the reporter was not only a recording of answers he’s given in prior venues, it also shows no desire to dig to the root of economic inequality. If we improve white unemployment to, say, 5%, Obama’s statement effectively argues that it’s ok for black unemployment to be at 10% (which is higher than the national unemployment rate right now, during one of the greatest recessions in American history).
So, given that the rest of America is sickened by unemployment rates of 8%, this justifies the fact that African Americans should be angry about being stuck at double digit unemployment during good economic times. In other words, the president’s acknowledgement implies that we have reason to be angry; unless, of course, we should relegate ourselves to second class citizenship.
The second thing I noticed about Obama’s response to Ms. Ryan is that although the reporter clearly asked about African Americans, the president did the typical racial lumping, by throwing Asians and Latin Americans into the pile. Sorry Mr. President, she was asking about black people. You should answer her question more directly next time.
Thirdly, I give the president credit for discussing the idea of replicating successful inner city programs to help black unemployment. He mentioned a program he’d visited recently that is designed to give job skills to inner-city residents. What President Obama seems to forget is that not every African American lives in the inner-city.
In addition, many of the black unemployed in America are not low-skilled workers; middle class and highly-educated African Americans are also plagued with the challenges of continued discrimination and institutionalized racism that can impact employment. So, not only did the president lump black people into the “all minority group”, he presumed that we are mostly poor, low skilled and urban. I’d expect that from George Bush, but not from the first black president.
Mr. President, putting all games aside, here is what you need to do:
1) Spend the stimulus money faster. America is watching and the Republicans are seeing this as their chance to shatter your halo. Most home owners haven’t felt any impact from your efforts to restart the housing market, and most of the spending from your stimulus plan has not yet occurred. Find out where the bottleneck lies and get that money out now.
2) If a reporter asks you about African Americans, please talk about African Americans. Don’t assume that we are the same as every other non-white ethnic group across America. The racial dichotomy of “white” vs. “non-white” doesn’t apply to a diverse society, and you should be more intelligent than that. I know you are, and I hope you are willing to express this intelligence.
3) If you tell a reporter to “hold on” in the middle of her comment (as you did with Ms. Ryan), make sure you come back and allow her to ask her follow-up question. Shutting down the only black reporter in mid-sentence makes it appear as though you’re treating her as an angry black woman.
4) If you are going to have prepackaged answers for black reporters, please come up with something better than the “rising tide helps everyone/lump the minorities together/we do charity in the inner city” answer. Show your intelligence by giving a response that reflects your understanding of the complex nature of the issue and the necessity of removing the effects of historical discrimination and persistent economic disparities. Our problems are unique and it’s an insult to have a black president who only wants to acknowledge the black community when it is convenient to do so in broad-based and stereotypical generalities.
President Obama has an unbelievably difficult task before him. I can’t think of a single leader who could do a better job under these circumstances. However, President Obama must be clear to remember that keeping unemployment low for blacks and whites is not the same as removing the difference in unemployment between blacks and whites.
While the recession implies that saving the nation is clearly the bigger issue, the truth is that in the midst of stimulus spending, there may also be an opportunity to diminish historical economic disparities.