United States: Obama forgets Black community

February 12, 2010

What I found most striking about President Barack Obama's first "State of the Union" address before Congress on January 27 was what he didn't say.

As Obama is the first US president of African heritage, I expected his 70-minute speech on the economy to highlight the special impact of the recession on Blacks.

The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, always spoke of the special concerns of African Americans — even when he didn't mean it.

Clinton, for example, adopted the conservatives' position on gutting the welfare system that led to tens of thousands of poor African Americans losing their benefits.

Obama, however, decided not to mention the special problems of African Americans — even in a situation where the blows of the Great Recession disproportionately hurt African Americans.

Official unemployment is nearly 50% higher for African Americans than for whites. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said in November unemployment for whites was 9.3%, but 15.6% for Blacks.

The long-term unemployment rate (those jobless for 27 weeks) is twice as high for African Americans. Black men working at full-time jobs earn on average 74.5% of the wage for white men.

Instead, Obama talked about the 25 tax cuts" his administration has already given to business (with more on the way). He said the cuts went to "95% of all Americans", but refused to note how discrimination is still alive and well or its special impact on Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities.

Obama tells African Americans the positive programs the government is working on that will benefit equally all social groups. In other words, Obama accepts the conservatives' argument that by improving the situation for the "middle (and upper) class" in general, it will lift the poor, including African Americans.

No need special programs are needed any more.

Thus, he makes a proposal to add more money for education in rural and urban areas, which is good, but he doesn't deal with the inherent inequalities built into the market system.

His populist attacks on big banks may play well, but don't end discrimination, stop foreclosures or provide jobs.

Bottom line: Obama's speech was truly colourblind.


A liberal Democratic pundit for MSNBC, Chris Matthews, said after president Obama's speech: "He is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was Black tonight for an hour.

"You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader [!] of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two.

"I mean, it's something we don't even think about."

Who are the "we"?

Blair Kelley, an African American associate professor at North Carolina State University responded: "It's important for us to remember that everyone has a race.

"When you say we're going to transcend race, are white people called on to transcend their whiteness? When (Black people) transcend it, what do we become? Do we become white?

"Why would we have to stop being our race in order to solve a problem?"

The point is obvious: To be Black is considered a handicap.

Obama is fully aware of what he's doing when he doesn't mention racism. Obama decided that not talking about racial divisions, especially to Congress, is the "safe" way forward.

Instead, he advocates "non-racial" solutions aimed at lifting everyone up one rung on the ladder.

It's not a new approach. And it won't work.

It is a false reading of race relations, where structural discrimination is at the root of racial tensions in the country.

It is an attempt to appeal to the right, with the expectation the Black community will back him no matter what.

Yet the conservatives' political and economic agenda has no room for Obama. Their explicit goal is to put "one of their own" back in the White House.

The Republican Party firmly rejects special affirmative programs to help African Americans who have suffered from the legacy of slavery, legal discrimination and institutional racism today. It is a reason why they reject a Black as president.

Obama is genuinely concerned about the sufferings of the Black community, but like all cross-over Black elected officials who need the white vote to be in office, he downplays his "colour" and racism.

Limits of Black nationalism

What also struck me about Obama's speech, and the responses to it, is both the solidarity and narrowness inherent in "Black nationalism". It is Black pride that explains the 80% plus support for Obama in the Black community.

But ethnic nationalism blinds critical thinking. Look at how the Black elites walk on eggshells when discussing what Obama does or does not do for the African American population.

In the 1960s and '70s we saw the same response when the first Black mayors were elected to office.

What we have is a Black community "satisfied and proud" to have one of our own as the most powerful person in the world — even if Obama gets little respect from the far right that still challenges his birth certificate.

It's why the criticisms, when raised, tend to be polite.

This sentimental "Black nationalism" is positive only in the sense of Black pride. Politically, it indicates a weak awareness of how best to organise a campaign to pressure the government and bosses to help the Black community get more jobs, a better education and take on institutional discrimination.

In some ways, we have taken one step forward and two back under a Black president.

Two prominent African American columnists, the New York Times's Bob Herbert and the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, have called Obama out for failing to deal with the jobs issue and high unemployment as it impacts African Americans.

They are careful in how they criticise Obama because of the right wing attacks. Unfortunately, the end result for the educated elite (including leaders of the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus) is political inaction.

The failure of the Black leadership to push the government to act helps explain why the streets are empty of big protests and why there hasn't been the revitalisation of a new anti-racist movement to respond to structural discrimination.

Obama's failure to respond to his strongest base (the Black community) reflects a deeper political flaw of liberal and centrist Democratic leaders.

Lack of leadership

Obama is called a "radical" by the right wing, but his policies are a reflection of the centre of the two-party system, even though the "tea baggers" of the far right see his presidency as illegitimate.

Blacks cannot achieve full equality so long as the false conservative theory remains that a "rising boat" lifts all racial groups equally.

African Americans are still years behind whites in every economic field. The increase in education funding will not change that without affirmative action and special steps taken by the government, courts and employers.

Obama's approach cannot solve the unique situation of working class Black people. Obama's refusal to speak to this issue in the "State of the Union" is a setback to achieving full Black equality.

The fact that civil rights groups have not taken to the streets to demand jobs and other programs for the Black community lets the government and bosses off the hook.

The contradiction of "two Americas" is not yet a thing of the past.

Even president Lyndon Johnson in the '60s (who signed the civil rights and voting rights acts) faced the Poor People's marches led by Martin Luther King Jr.

King was assassinated in Memphis, where he was supporting Black sanitation workers. He understood that legal equality alone would not lead to full equality.

There must also be economic justice.

The Black nationalism and identity politics of the past was a banner under which Blacks fought Jim Crow segregation. It was progressive, militant and powerful because it took on legal and extralegal discrimination.

Malcolm X symbolised that anger and power of the fight for "Black Power".

What did the first year of the Obama presidency do for African Americans?

He succeeded in giving hope to millions. But significantly, the end result is a demobilised community, one waiting for Obama instead of acting in our own self-interests. A strategy of "Let's not rock the boat as Obama carries out his agenda", whether openly stated or not, is behind the lack of action.

Ethnic nationalism, in today's context, by default helps advance the conservative viewpoint in the Black community. Narrow ethnic politics focuses on "self-help" and not the reality of discrimination.

The state of Black America

Obama's speech to the country is a setback for the broader fight to end racism and white domination. It is simply not acceptable to say that it is okay that we have a Black president and "better him than a white guy like Bush".

Political pundits focus on Obama's tax-cut proposals, war spending, plans to freeze certain programs and build nuclear power plants, and the Republicans' obstructionism and resurgence.

What I see as decisive is the big failure to address the real problems of African Americans by a Black president who could make a difference.

What good is it being in the most powerful office and not using that power to advance the needs of the Black community and those who have suffered from racial discrimination?

The Black leadership and community should continue to salute and defend Obama's legitimate election against the slanders of the right. But we must also press him to do what's right.

We cannot accept his "ethnic-less, class-less" solutions to end racism. African Americans — as we've done throughout history — need to press our demands aggressively on the government, Wall Street and the courts.

Obama, like his predecessors, will respond to such agitation or suffer the consequences.

[Malik Miah is an editor of Against The Current.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.