Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a thought provoking article for the Atlantic entitled Fear of a Black President. I encourage everyone to take time to read his brilliant article. In it, Coates writes that:
Part of that conservatism about race has been reflected in his reticence: for most of his term in office, Obama has declined to talk about the ways in which race complicates the American present and, in particular, his own presidency...
Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.
His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity"...
Whatever the political intelligence of this calculus, it has broad and deep consequences. The most obvious result is that it prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war. There have been calls for Obama to take a softer line on state-level legalization of marijuana or even to stand for legalization himself. Indeed, there is no small amount of inconsistency in our black president’s either ignoring or upholding harsh drug laws that every day injure the prospects of young black men—laws that could have ended his own, had he been of another social class and arrested for the marijuana use he openly discusses. ”For example, when Trayvon Martin was lynched, it took President Obama about a month to issue any statement, and that response came after a reporter raised the issue. When urged to directly address unemployment and poverty in the black community, the President says "a rising tide lifts all boats" and that "he is not the President of Black America."
African Americans are the President's base. We are his most loyal supporters. According to news reports, black support for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is at zero percent. Approximately 94 percent of African Americans support the President. In exchange for our support, our issues should be at forefront of the President's agenda. He should and must speak out about race and racism. Sentimental symbolism and black cultural references are not sufficient.
The President boldly addresses the issues of facing LGBTs, Latinos and women. However, when it comes to race, the President is silent. Sadly, we enable the President to remain silent by mindlessly chanting and convincing ourselves that "he's not the President of Black America." No other lobbying group takes such a self-defeating and self-censoring attitude. You will never hear other groups say, "He's not the President of gay America. He's not the President of feminist America. He's not the President of immigrant America." Other interest groups relentlessly promote their agenda without apology. We must do the same.
We cannot afford to remain silent. As reported in the Huffington Post, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 13.6 percent in May, compared to a national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent. For black men, the unemployment rate was 15 percent in May. For black women, the unemployment rate was 12.3 percent.
Moreover, according to the Associated Press, "the ranks of America's poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net." Experts expect the poverty rate to increase from 15.1 percent to 15.7 percent, the highest level since 1965. Poverty disproportionately affects black people and Latinos. According to the New York Times,
"Minorities were hit hardest. Blacks experienced the highest poverty rate, at 27 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009, and Hispanics rose to 26 percent from 25 percent. For whites, 9.9 percent lived in poverty, up from 9.4 percent in 2009. Asians were unchanged at 12.1 percent."The “a rising tide lifts all boats” approach and attitude has not worked. Instead of demonizing people like Cornel West and Travis Smiley for pressuring President Obama to address the issue of poverty, we should join them.
In all fairness, none of those problems started under President Obama's administration. Certainly, the President has implemented policies that benefit African Americans such as the Affordable Health Care Act, the Fair Sentencing Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and other policies. Obviously, such policies are more important than rhetoric.
However, the President must directly and specifically speak about race and racism. He must develop targeted programs to address disproportionate unemployment and poverty in the black community. He has a moral obligation to the countless African Americans who fought and died for the right to vote. He owes it to the overwhelming percentage of African Americans who voted for him in 2008. Stand up, Mr. President!
This article is cross-posted on Jack and Jill Politics.