On election night 2008, newly elected President Barack Obama stood at the podium in Chicago’s Grant Park and recounted the story of Ann Nixon Cooper. At the time, Cooper was 106 years old. Obama described her as being “just a generation past slavery” and noted that she came up in “a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”
He was making clear the amount of progress that had been made in the more than century since Cooper’s birth, that his election would have been unthinkable then but now was accomplishment all of America could be proud of.
Obama is very aware of his race. He’s black and acknowledged as much while filling out his census form. He is aware of the history of race and racism in this country and ingrained inequality of our social and political structures. His mother made sure of this when he was a child.
Obama was a student of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement as a young adult. He has a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his desk in the oval office. And more recently he had Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of Ruby Bridges integrating a New Orleans school installed in the White House.
But if you were to let Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, and a number of others tell the story, Obama does his best to avoid the issue of race and black folks altogether. Their beef isn’t new, as they have railed against Obama’s lack of a “black agenda” since before he was elected and neglected to appear at Smiley’s 2008 State of the Black Union Address, having turned up the volume as the years have worn on and also turning their attention to the issue of poverty.
And as we have dealt with the news of the widening wealth gap and 16 percent unemployment among black Americans, Congresswoman Maxine Waters has joined the chorus of Obama critics, asking permission of the black community to be “unleashed” and take the president to task on his inaction in addressing this current crisis.
He may not have come out with a unified and comprehensive “black agenda” to this point, but there hasn’t been an absence of concrete actions on the part of the Obama administration that directly affect the black community.
Under Obama, there has been a revitalization of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Originally “created in 1957 to help the Freedom Riders and students seeking to integrate public schools” and has since been responsible for enforcement of employment, disability rights and other anti-discrimination laws, this division all but disappeared during George W. Bush’s presidency, as 70 percent of the lawyers left amid allegations of the Bush administration’s politicizing hiring.
Obama appointed consumer advocate and civil right lawyer Thomas E. Perez as Assistant Attorney General and head of this division and provided the largest budget increase in its history. With Perez’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division has “established a dedicated Fair Lending Unit to address unscrupulous practices by lenders and to hold accountable those lenders that have targeted minority communities for these toxic products.”
They also “obtained the largest monetary settlement of a rental-discrimination case under the Fair Housing Act in our division’s history” in a case in Los Angeles that involved discrimination against African-Americans and Latinos.
In August of 2010, he signed legislation that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from the astronomical 100 to 1 down to 18 to 1, while also eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for simple possession of crack.
This law disproportionately affected black people, who have been under attack in the War on Drugs and targeted for possession and sale of crack cocaine, handing out much harsher and lengthy prison sentences for the cheaper variation of the same drug. This is not total equality, but an important step in the right direction.
Also, last year, Obama signed an executive order that added $98 million to the White House program for strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for the 2011 fiscal year, an increase $13 million (or 5 percent). His budget plan also included $20.5 million for repair, renovation, construction and acquisition of HBCU educational facilities, as well as support for $279 million in loans, up a $100 million from 2010. There was an additional 5 percent increase in the Strengthening Historically Black Graduate Instruction program, which aids graduate programs.
Even with these very real achievements on his record, Obama has not escaped criticism of neglecting the black community. In part, it’s because his administration has done a poor job of relating these achievements to the public. The main reason is that none of this sounds good in the face of double-digit unemployment rates.
The most vocal of his critics (Smiley, West, and increasingly Waters), want the president to lay out a plan that explicitly spells out actions to be taken to address the concerns of black people. It’s no different than what black leaders have done under any other president, and it’s important that as the false narrative to post-racial America takes hold of people’s imaginations that the plight of persons of color be highlighted and policies advocated for on their behalf. These leaders want us to always remember that racism is still a factor in American life and politics. What they haven’t recognized is that Obama has to face that same racism in his everyday dealings.
He has already had to fight back against claims of being a socialist, fascist, America-hating Muslim immigrant. Obama doesn’t have the luxury of other presidents who could appear to reaching out to minority communities. If he were to a program and call it “the black agenda,” the same folks who brought us the “Hip-Hop BBQ” moniker would like accuse him of only looking out for his “homies.” Birthers would find a renewed sense of hatred and purpose. Obama knows what he’s up against and is playing the held he’s been dealt.
The election of the nation’s first black president has left many flabbergasted. We have had to throw out the old politics playbook and adjust to a very different reality. There are certain things this president can not say in the current political climate, unless he wants to guarantee himself a single-term presidency. That isn’t his fault, and we would like to see different for a potential second black president, we who aren’t in his position have to work to elevate the discourse and erase the barriers that limit and/or prevent progress.