WASHINGTON — After President Obama gave a stem-winder of a speech that drew a standing ovation from most of the crowd attending a Congressional Black Caucus gala last month, his most vociferous black critics among the liberal elite should have been temporarily quieted. But they were not. They distorted his remarks as an excuse to keep up their volley of disrespect, disparagement and blame.
So be it. There are few better ways to remain relevant on the public stage than to be among the well-known black activists who bitterly criticize the nation’s first black president.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that some of the criticism that emanates from familiar quarters — Tavis Smiley, Cornel West — has its foundation in a genuine disappointment that Obama hasn’t done more to usher in an age of equal opportunity for the nation’s black citizens, who have been pummeled by the economic downturn. Let’s take at face value the idea that Obama ought to have a “black agenda” that attempts to erase the economic barriers that pose a particular problem for black Americans.
What would such an agenda look like? Is it possible for Obama to eliminate the remaining vestiges of systemic racism? Can he solve the decades-old problems that have resulted in a black unemployment rate that is twice as high as the national average?
Those questions deserve more serious analysis than the superficial resentments that come from Obama’s most persistent black critics. The rhetoric in his speeches — whether pointed or professorial, condescending or comforting — is unlikely to do much to prod a business owner to hire an unemployed black man without a high school diploma.
A wrenching economic downturn has brought into stark relief the financial realities of many black households — prosperity is tenuous, security is elusive and footholds on the economic ladder are slippery. Of course, millions of working class whites would no doubt argue that their economic fortunes have been similarly tenuous.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for Obama to concentrate on broad policies that create jobs across-the-board. Inevitably, black unemployment will drop when companies start signing up workers again. Obama’s speech to the CBC emphasized his jobs bill, which he hopes will spur hiring.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the CBC, says the group deserves some of the credit for putting the issue of “unemployment on the front burner in the American dialogue” when much of political Washington was consumed by the debt debate. “Many of the proposals in the jobs bill are things we have been pushing.” (Cleaver, by the way, has sometimes clashed with the president over policy, but he says he was “not offended” by the speech.)
So is Obama right to assume that a rising tide lifts all boats? The Clinton-era economy brought a level of unprecedented prosperity to black households, as it ushered in good fortune for all.
Still, it’s true that a rowboat will be more vulnerable to swells and wakes than a yacht. Black Americans struggle with disadvantages that are peculiar to our history in this country. And most of those are beyond a president’s ability to fix — even a black president. They include the lingering vestiges of institutional racism, as well as the more persistent — and more pernicious — implicit biases. Those are the subconscious prejudices that make it more difficult for a young Harvard grad named DeShawn to get a corporate job than for a young Harvard grad named John.
Furthermore, the nation’s first black president is constrained in discussing those lingering biases because he has to prove to skeptical whites that he isn’t consumed by racial issues or attempting to pass special favors to black constituents. Even in the absence of evidence, some white voters insist that Obama has done more for black Americans than for whites — testimony to the tribal instincts that refuse to die.
“I understand why he would hesitate to do a lot of talking about (racial issues),” said Cleaver, who was the first black mayor of Kansas City, Mo., which has a predominantly white population. “I know you have to sometimes walk between raindrops.”
Even so, both Cleaver and Obama are potent reminders of the racial progress that has been possible over a few short decades. Obama can’t wave a magic wand and eliminate job barriers or racial prejudices, but his presence in the Oval Office is still a powerful symbol of the possibilities.
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