Bernard Anderson, a pathbreaking African-American economist, understands the importance of rhetoric. He was up front at the Lincoln Memorial when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. And he was in the audience on the Howard University campus in 1965 to hear President Johnson deliver a grim view of the state of black America and declare war on "past injustice and present prejudice."
So Anderson had high hopes as he sat at home in Pennsylvania watching President Obama deliver his second Inaugural Address this year. He wanted Obama to acknowledge that even five decades after Johnson's stirring oration, African Americans in today's America still struggle against discrimination. And when the president started talking about "We, the people," the veteran civil-rights champion grew excited. "As he was going through 'We, the people' and 'We, the people,' my heart started to beat," Anderson said. But just as fast, his spirits sank. "I didn't find me among the people he was talking about."
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Eleven days later, Anderson -- an early supporter and fundraiser for Obama, an Obama delegate in 2008, and an expert on economic disparities who has been called to the Obama White House several times -- allowed himself to vent his frustration and call for more high-level attention to the black community's economic challenges.
Grumbling that he had heard "not a single blessed word on race" in the Inaugural Address, Anderson told attendees at the fourth annual African-American Economic Summit at Howard, "I believe now is the time for the president to find his voice, summon his courage, and use some of his political capital to eliminate racial inequality in American economic life." To applause, he added, "We cannot let the president off the hook in the second term. Black people gave him a pass in the first term .... He is not going to run for anything. He doesn't deserve a pass anymore."
In those few moments at the microphone, Anderson gave voice to the inner turmoil shared by so many African Americans. Thrilled beyond words at seeing a proudly black man in the Oval Office, they almost don't want to admit they want still more. But they know they have to be exceedingly careful in pushing Obama to talk more about -- and do more for -- black Americans still reeling from a recession that hit them harder than anyone else.
Wanting more is why so many blacks, from the barbershops and street corners to the think tanks and highest levels of academe, are investing so much in the belief that Obama has been liberated by his reelection to become more of a champion for his community. "That's what African Americans out in the world believe," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "I can't tell you how often I heard that, particularly during the campaign." Cleaver said he still keeps hearing, "In the second term, we're going to get the 'real' Barack Obama, and by 'real,' they mean that, I guess, he's going to show up in a dashiki."
Just because that view is widely shared in the black community does not make it so, of course. Cleaver responds, "The president was who he was in the first term. And it would be foolish for me or any CBC member to give them the impression that the nation and the world will see some kind of reincarnation of Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton." But many African American leaders still hope there is some truth in the widespread belief. "Will President Obama find his voice in this term? My answer is yes," said Lorenzo Morris, a Howard University political-science professor. "He won't have a big stick to carry with it, but it will be a voice that I think will be a little clearer."
That hope springs from the reality of daily life for many African Americans. The Great Recession may be over for the country as a whole, but they aren't feeling the recovery. Black unemployment remains double that for whites. The median income gap between white and black households has hit a record high. Blacks have half the access to health care as whites. The gap in homeownership is wider today than it was in 1990. African Americans are twice as likely as whites to have suffered foreclosure.
The list goes on: Net wealth for black families dropped by 27.1 percent during the recession. One in 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared with one in 106 white men. Blacks make up 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons. Although only 13.8 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans represent 27 percent of those living below the poverty line.
It is a grim picture -- and one that administration policymakers know well. They insist the White House has attacked the stubborn problems with an array of policies, some of them through executive-branch actions and more through legislative proposals.
Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, thinks there is a chance we will hear more from Obama on these issues now that he has secured another four years. "I do think it is probably realistic that in his first term he was a bit more cautious than one might expect him to be in this term," she toldNational Journal soon after she and other black leaders met with Obama at the White House. "I do see this president as one who now is ready to lay out a legacy .... Though he is still facing a significant amount of challenge [from Congress], he has finally -- it took him a minute to get it -- but I think he has finally got the hang of the effective use of the bully pulpit."
At that White House meeting, which lasted more than two hours on Feb. 21, the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, drew laughter from Obama and his fellow activists when he found a folksy way to defend the president from charges he didn't talk enough in his first term about black issues:
"I had a friend when we were in school who told me he was going on a kosher diet. He converted his religion. We went to eat, and he ordered a ham sandwich. I said, 'You can't eat that.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'That is pork.' He said, 'No, no, no. Pork is pork chops or pork loin. I said, 'No, you don't have to call it pork for it to be pork. It is still pork.' " The lesson, Sharpton said, is simple: "Some things he's done, it may not have been called 'black.' But it affected us. It was still pork."
Jones-DeWeever said that Sharpton, who sat directly across the table from the president in the Roosevelt Room, was also very forceful in characterizing much of the criticism of Obama's first term as misguided. "Reverend Sharpton makes a very good point that the president has been critiqued by certain very loud elements of the black community who have argued the president hasn't pursued a black agenda," she said. "And Reverend Sharpton pointed out in this meeting that it is not the president's responsibility to define a black agenda. He is the president. It is the responsibility of advocates to define the agenda and then push it forward .... That's what we do."