Has President Obama Done Enough for Black Americans?

For many, this is still a land of unequal opportunity. A history-making president may not be enough.


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."

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."

Walking Softly

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."

From the start, Obama has steered clear of the notion that he has any special responsibility to the African-American community. Asked that question in 2011, he told NPR, "I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That's my job as president of the United States. And I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American dream."

Inevitably, answers like that draw criticism from some African Americans. But the critics have found little traction in a community still in awe of having one of its own win the presidency. Princeton University professor Cornel West drew stinging rebukes when he told the Democracy Now! radio program that last year's election had been won by "a Rockefeller Republican in blackface." West and his partner in excoriating Obama, PBS host Tavis Smiley, find themselves increasingly marginalized because their attacks on the president have been so overheated. Their critique has been discounted "because it has been so very personal," said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, who keeps his criticism focused on the issues he believes Obama is giving short shrift.

Harris noted that the president used Martin Luther King's bible at his swearing-in and featured Medgar Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers, at the inauguration. But Harris also craves more substance. "You had all these symbolic gestures that are connected to the civil-rights past," he said. "But there is not enough focus or attention, particularly policy-wise, on addressing the legacies of racial inequality in this country." He noted an ongoing study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania by professor Daniel Q. Gillion, showing that Obama spoke less about race in his first two years than any other Democratic president since 1961. As Harris noted in The New York Times in October, "From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting."

Anderson, the economist whose heart sank while watching the inauguration, was assistant secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, in charge of enforcing affirmative action for government contracts. An adviser to the National Urban League and an emeritus professor of economics at the Wharton School, he remains a strong supporter of Obama's. But Anderson yearns for the president to gain his voice on racial issues, as he did during a memorable speech in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. He finds it sad that Obama "evidently does not want to be labeled as a president who is consumed by racial inequality in this country." And the view "that an African-American president must remain silent on this issue? That's an abomination," Anderson says. "We can't tolerate that."

It did not go unnoticed that Obama steered clear of inner cities and predominantly African-American communities in his first term and his reelection campaign. An analysis of campaign travel by National Journal's Beth Reinhard ("Beyond the Trail") found that Obama did not campaign in any of the 100 counties with the highest jobless rates. The president went to Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia during the campaign, but primarily for fundraisers. Typical was his visit to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem last year for a fundraising event made memorable not for his talk about poverty or race but for his brief riff on an Al Green song.

Of course, a president's campaign schedule is mostly dictated by electoral realities. Obama had already locked up the black vote. The keys to victory were the suburban counties. And that meant more presidential visits to Ohio's Montgomery County around Dayton than to Cleveland's Hough neighborhood.

Even at the White House, Obama shied away from discussing race, with only a few exceptions, in his first term. At a July 2009 press conference, he lashed out at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department for arresting Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African American, as he tried to enter his own home. The police, Obama said, "acted stupidly." To quell the ensuing furor, the president invited Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for a "beer summit" aimed at turning the controversy into a "teachable moment."

Three years later, he reacted to the shooting death in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a private citizen who found the black teen's presence in his neighborhood suspicious. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the emotional president said.

But those two statements were just about it for the first four years, when the uber-cautious "post-racial" Obama was front and center. Typical was his comment in a 2009 interview with the Detroit Free Press and USA Today. "The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community. Period. And that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again," he said. "It's a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are going to get out of this together."

But that is not enough for many in the black community. Anderson still recalls from memory Johnson's stirring speech at Howard. "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up the starting line of a race, and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair," LBJ said. Anderson pointedly asks, "Can you imagine President Obama referring to 200 years of slavery? I cannot imagine him saying anything like that .... He has an obligation to address this [economic disparity] that is grinding black people down." While encouraged by parts of Obama's State of the Union address, Anderson asks, "Why has he not revisited the issue since he made that speech during the campaign?"

An Old Fight

At the White House, there is little patience with the critics and some exasperation at those who want more talk from the president about what he is doing for his "own community." To them, that sentiment is reminiscent of the "Is he black enough?" questions that dogged his campaign in its 2007 infancy. Privately, administration officials bristle when asked why Obama doesn't talk more about race in the ways that Presidents Johnson, Carter, and Clinton did.

"The president gave one of the most powerful speeches about race in history during the 2008 campaign," Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, told National Journal. "He is now interested in results. So he will be judged by his actions.... Simply talking about race is not as important as actually working toward equality." As president, she said, Obama does not want to single out one community in his rhetoric. "He is interested ... in describing our challenges in terms of how we are inextricably linked in mutuality," she said, adding, "The president tries to describe our challenges in ways that are inclusive." That is how he hopes to "keep the broadest possible mandate for moving forward," she said. "He does not intend to polarize; he intends to unify."

Jarrett challenged the notion that the president has been freed by reelection to be himself. "It is liberating in terms of the president's time, because he can spend all of his time now focused on being president," she said. "He had to run a campaign and then his day job, which was pretty all-consuming. So it is certainly liberating in the sense that not having to run for reelection is a burden that is lifted."

But that, she said, does not mean a "new" Obama. "His core values, his principles, and his vision for America are the same in the second term as they were in the first term," she insisted.

Jarrett, 56, is the go-to person in the White House for black leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus. She, like Obama, did not come out of the traditional civil-rights movement. But she has gained the trust of that establishment. "She is very important," Sharpton said. "I have a lot of respect for her because she has never misled us. She does not mind telling you she disagrees with you. She does not mind telling you no. But if she says yes, she stands by it."

Jarrett earned her first scars in Chicago City Hall when that city's first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, was trying to balance the demands of a newly empowered black community and a white population that felt threatened. She understands that nothing is ever simple in matters of race. Today, she hears the demands; she gets the complaints; she goes to the meetings. But she also sees how average African Americans -- and even veteran civil-rights leaders -- react to the reality that a black son of an African man is the president of the United States and a confident black woman is first lady.

The last time she had the luxury of focusing on that history was election night in 2008, Jarrett said. "Frankly, we're so busy that we don't have that much time to reflect right now on the historical significance," she said. To her, the importance of the 2012 election is that "you didn't hear a lot of conversation about his race. You heard a debate about two different visions of America."

Other black leaders try to put the history aside and concern themselves with the work in front of them. "It's all business, but you do have that pride," said Jones-DeWeever after her White House meeting with Obama. Sitting across the table from the president, she focused on the agenda, fighting for programs that would bring jobs and education and hope to the hard-hit African-American community. But she wasn't prepared for how she reacted when she got home and told her boyfriend about the session. "I left that meeting, and I said to my partner, 'You know what? We have a black president,' " she recalled. "He laughed and said, 'I know.' I said, 'No, you're not hearing me: We have a black president. We have a black president.' You couldn't wipe the smile off my face." It was a moment that surprised her.

For Sharpton, there also are those unexpected moments, such as when he was at the White House to watch the Super Bowl during Obama's first term. He was introducing his daughter to Michelle Obama when he saw a historic portrait of George Washington behind her. "It struck me how far we have come," he said. "But," he quickly added, "those of us who have worked with the administration from the beginning are more sober, because we've been in there enough now where you see the other side of that, [which] is, the expectations are higher."

By Any Other Name

Those expectations include programs that can lift urban areas out of poverty, improve inner-city schools, reform the criminal-justice system, and alleviate sky-high black unemployment. All these numbers, Jarrett acknowledges, have been stubbornly resistant to fixes from Washington, none more so than the jobless figures. African Americans are the only demographic group with higher unemployment today than when Obama took office. White unemployment dropped from 7.1 percent in January 2009 to 6.8 percent in February 2013. Hispanic unemployment dropped from 10.0 percent to 9.6 percent. But African-American unemployment rose from 12.7 percent to 13.8 percent during that time.

A White House official, who asked not to be named, calls those numbers "unacceptably high" but insists that "we have made real progress," with black joblessness on a decline from 16.8 percent in August 2011. "We have seen it come down pretty dramatically over the last couple years, and that is not an accident. That is the explicit result" of administration policies.

"Jobs, jobs, jobs has been the central focus of the president's administration since day one," Jarrett said, and also, she noted, at the heart of the "Ladder of Opportunity" program the president laid out in his State of the Union in February and his follow-up speech in Chicago. In his second term, the president is determined to target the most stubborn pockets of unemployment in urban areas, another White House aide said, pointing out that a part of the American Jobs Act -- which remains untouched by Congress -- "would provide subsidized employment for the long-term unemployed in this country, which would disproportionately benefit many people of color." The president's new proposals also recognize "that where you live matters, and that in many of our ... areas of concentrated poverty, we need to take a holistic approach, to really invest." The president talked about investing in 20 selected communities, focusing on education, housing, and crime, but also, according to the aide, "looking at how we create jobs and leverage private capital back into these communities."

As he promoted his new programs in a return to his hometown of Chicago in February, the president added a distinct personal touch that some outsiders took as an indication he could be more open about race in his second term. After meeting with young black men from the Hyde Park Academy, Obama drew some knowing laughter when he noted, "A lot of them have had some issues." But the president stressed his kinship with them. "I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me."

Reminiscent of his Trayvon Martin remark, this statement resonated in the black community like almost no other presidential words of the past four years. It was, for some, proof that the second term will indeed be different on race. And the president used that Chicago speech to outline what he called his "vision of where we want to be." It was a speech that touched on all the ills that plague urban communities: lack of role models, a too-low minimum wage, guns, violent crime, inadequate education, substandard housing, and the reluctance of businesses to locate in inner cities and hire local workers.

In some ways, it was the shooting in the white suburban community of Newtown, Conn., that provided the impetus for the president to talk about the gun violence that is so endemic to black neighborhoods in Chicago, Minneapolis (where he also traveled recently), and other cities. In Chicago alone, 443 people were killed by guns last year, with an additional 42 homicides by gun this January, the most since 2002. "Too many of our children are being taken away from us," Obama declared emotionally.

Much of what he said on guns in that speech clearly resonated with his audience. And much of what he said in the rest of the speech about economic opportunity and jobs was in sync with the "black agenda" adopted after the election by a group of leaders headed by Urban League President Marc Morial. That agenda, Jarrett said, "is one that the president has embraced from day one." But, not surprisingly for the Obama White House, she adds quickly, "It is important to point out that it isn't just African Americans who benefit from these policies."

Like Sharpton's "ham sandwich" story, she and other administration officials stress that the president has championed policies that aren't called "black programs" but that benefit blacks. Health care reform is at the top of that list. "Approximately 7 million African Americans are without health insurance," Jarrett said. "So, yes, it is a policy that disproportionately does benefit the African-American community. But it also disproportionately benefits poor people." In that vein, the White House cites the president's espousal of voting rights and his opposition to Republican efforts to more tightly regulate voting.

Hilary O. Shelton, Washington bureau director for the NAACP, credits the Justice Department for fighting racial profiling and praises the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law for targeting predatory lending in inner cities. He also mentions the Fair Sentencing Act's reform of punishment for crack-cocaine versus powder-cocaine offenses. "All of these policies don't mention the African-American community one time," Shelton said. "But all of them have our priorities interwoven into the initiative."

At the White House, that caveat always gets added: He isn't doing these things just to help blacks. In this, Georgetown Law professor Paul Butler says Obama is being steadfast. "He doesn't like to talk about race. He does not like to talk about racial justice. He believes in it, but he has a color-blind approach."

It is, perhaps, the strongest evidence of Obama's generational differences with the civil-rights pioneers. But the president has been decidedly consistent. He articulated his philosophy in an interview with the Chicago Reader in 1995 when he was launching his political career with a run for the Illinois Legislature. "We have moved beyond the clarion-call stage that we needed during the civil-rights movement," Obama declared. "Now, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we must move into a building stage."

Obama had attended the Million Man March that October, but he faulted the organizers for not developing a positive agenda beyond just demanding "our fair share." And he added, "Any African Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled if they don't also come to grips with the larger economic forces that are creating economic insecurity for all workers -- whites, Latinos, and Asians."

A Rift in Time

It is this reticence to talk specifically about targeting programs for African Americans that privately drives some members of the Congressional Black Caucus to distraction. That, and the president's odd refusal to meet often with a group he belonged to during his brief Senate career.

The relationship has been challenged from the start. In 2009, caucus members had to watch the president meet with House and Senate Republicans and the Blue Dog Coalition before inviting them to the White House five weeks into his administration. Then, they chafed when forced to accept $60 billion in cuts in stimulus spending they wanted for urban communities. And they were unhappy at his escalation of the war in Afghanistan. When Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., one of the most senior and respected members of the Black Caucus, criticized Obama for watering down health care reform and taking advice from "clowns," the president called him and pointedly asked Conyers why he was "demeaning" him.

Then, in 2011, Obama delivered a speech to the CBC whose tone privately irked many of the members. "I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying," he said. "We are going to press on. We've got work to do, CBC."

The reaction was not good. "It was very condescending," Columbia University's Harris said. "For many people who are sick and tired of the Republican Party, we wish the president would speak in that tone to John Boehner and the Republican Party, which he doesn't. So I find it ironic that he would feel free to speak that way to the CBC."

Obama has not met with the caucus since, sending Jarrett instead. Cleaver admits the CBC would like more access. "Is there frustration sometimes when we can't get in to see the president when we want? Yes.... We do want to meet with the president more." But he adds, "So does [Vladimir] Putin," to suggest all the demands on a president's time.

The most recent request for a meeting with Obama came March 11 when CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, sent a letter to the White House complaining about the lack of African Americans among the president's second-term appointments. Voicing disappointment, she said CBC members are hearing from their constituents. "Their ire is compounded by the overwhelming support you've received from the African-American community," Fudge wrote, adding, "The absence of diverse voices leads to policies and programs that adversely impact African Americans."

Sharpton said he has counseled black lawmakers not to take it personally that Obama holds them at arm's length. "That's his style," Sharpton said. "I work with a lot of the caucus members. I've said to them, if he's meeting with other caucuses and a lot of congressional leaders and not with you, I would say that is wrong, and I would complain. But if that's his style, how do you deal with that, other than argue with his style?"

CBC members' reticence to protest publicly is also tied, as are all things with Obama, to the incredible history he represents. Those who work in the black community simply can't get over what it means to have a black president. They know this isn't a make-believe Hollywood character like Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable. This is a strong black man with a loving family who lives in the White House -- a real role model, whose image adorns classrooms across the nation.

And Obama understands the need for African-American role models. "There are entire neighborhoods where young people ... don't see an example of somebody succeeding," he said movingly in his recent Chicago speech. "And for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up and respected." Black leaders know that Obama powerfully fills that role.

And if they start to take it for granted, they often are reminded in stunning ways that make it smart to mute their frustration over the president's style or his shortcomings. For Jones-DeWeever, it came recently when she was watching a movie with her two sons.

Her younger son, 9, can only remember one president, and he is Obama. "It has made such an indelible mark on his mind that when we watched a movie and there was a white actor playing the president, he said to me, 'Ma, that ain't real.'" Jones-DeWeever was struck speechless. "It is almost inconceivable to him that there was a time that what we see now was unthinkable."

And perhaps, in this case, that reality alone is simply enough.