Can Obama Ever Do Enough For Black People?
Not unless blacks rethink feds' role in their lives and get specific about what they want
When President Barack Obama first made his historic move into the White House, many black folks thought his ascension meant that they’d, too, “get put on.”
They just knew that they’d be leaving that low-paying job for good. Affording college would be a whole lot easier. At least one black comic even joked that the election of the first African American president would turn life on its head so much, that 500 years of black enslavement would be repaid with blacks being able to own white slaves.
But they, like Morgan Goodman of Oakland, Calif., soon found out that, well, their college loans didn't just disappear with a "poof" once Obama occupied the White House.
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“I have a huge amount of [student] loans to pay back, along with copious amounts of taxes [on my income,]” says Goodman, a 28-year-old business sales rep. “I'm not rich, but a single male with no kids. The government pulls more money from me than a church asking for tithes on Sunday.”
There is no denying that after half a millennium of enslavement, legal segregation and blatant oppression of blacks in this country, a black man becoming president is both historic and in line with black ideals for what this country can become. And during his first term, Obama helped to enact policies, like the Affordable Health Care Act, that have positively impacted black people -- along with the rest of America. But can blacks as a whole ever be completely satisfied with the nation's first black president?
If they're like Goodman, who was hoping a black man in the White House would spell tax relief for brothers like him, probably not. And part of the rub lies in the positive impact federal government has historically had on black enfranchisement and empowerment. It took federal intervention to end slavery, to give black men the right to vote, to end legal segregation, and to bar states from depressing the black vote through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, even violence. Blacks have always been willing to fight for equality, but the battles have been especially difficult at the local and state levels of government.
Blacks are accustomed to the federal government, seemingly with one swipe of a pen, providing needed relief for what has ailed us, whether it be in the form of an Emancipation Proclamation, a Supreme Court decree ending segregation in the nation's schools and other public accommodations, or legislation protecting the black vote. But experts say it's time blacks begin to shift their thinking about the role the federal government should play in their lives. And, for areas of life where federal government has a role to play, blacks, like other constituencies, need to unify under specific demands for the president and federal lawmakers and hold firm to them.
“Obama will absolutely not satisfy all of our ideals,” says Dr. Kenneth Monteiro, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. “There is no president now, or probably in the next millennium, who will be able to satisfy that."
Whether it's Obama or someone else in that old White House, built by the hands of enslaved people, Monteiro says blacks should temper their expectations with the knowledge that "by law, let alone by tradition, [blacks] ought to have no reason to believe the United States could ever be a just society.”
History certainly bears out Monteiro's point.
The transatlantic slave trade displaced close to 20 million Africans and spread them throughout the Americas. Three centuries of enslavement in the U.S. morphed into legally sanctioned second-class existence and disenfranchisement. Later came separate but “equal” accommodations and an impenetrable glass ceiling preventing economic mobility. Fast-forward to Obama’s first election in 2008 and white Republicans' vow to do all they could to see him fail, or as they put it, make sure he was a “one-term president.”
The plan to hold Obama to one term obviously failed, with African Americans, including Shonte Dunham, 28, of Stockton, Calif., turning out in droves to help reelect him. But while Dunham, a single mother of one, had hoped that Obama would have done more to create jobs and make scholarships and grants available to black college students, she does think some African Americans' angst is misplaced when it comes to this president.
“Black folks think that people owe them something and that's where the discrepancies [in achievement] lie,” she says. “And that’s also a reason why President Obama will never be able to ‘do enough.’”
However, while Dunham may not regard Obama as the miracle worker some hoped him to be, she does hold him accountable for the lack of jobs in the black community and the limits on financial help for those who wish to finish college in order to qualify for a job or a better-paying job.
"The unemployment rate among Americans in general continues to be high, but the unemployment rate among African Americans is even higher," says Dunham, who reluctantly took a break from studying criminal justice due to a lack of student aid and concerns that the job to justify the degree wouldn't be there. "I expected President Obama to help create more jobs."
Similarly, Alvin Johnson, a 29-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who works as a hotel sous chef in New York City, says he expected to leave behind the potato peeling and take on elevated roles in the kitchen once Obama created more opportunities for folks like him.
“I thought I was going to get a job anywhere I wanted,” says Johnson, who finds himself still peeling potatoes after four years on the job. “It just felt good to have a black president.”
Given African Americans' history with federal intervention and with a black man in the White House, perhaps it’s only reasonable that many put their trust in the man with executive powers and a veto pen, even more so when that man is black. But what exactly is it that blacks today want the president to do? African Americans need to be specific and come up with policies geared to address certain needs in the black community.
“Every key constituency has figured that out,” says Frederick C. Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University in New York City. “Supporters of Israel know what they want. Gays and lesbians said, ‘We want don’t ask, don’t tell repealed and we want [Obama] to state his support for gay marriage. And Latinos came up with an agenda; they want immigration reform.”
Monteiro agrees and says it's more than okay to be critical of Obama.
“Almost all black folks that you talk to over the kitchen table or the street know that he is working harder than any previous president,” Monteiro says. “We’re not satisfied with the outcomes. We should critique [Obama]."
When Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, African Americans understood that it was an achievement that would impact them as well. When he passed the stimulus package, it saved hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs held by blacks. When he brought the troops home from Iraq and drew down the number in Afghanistan, saved the auto industry and expanded access to Pell Grants for poor college students, that all impacted the lives of African Americans.
But there is still a ways to go.
"We've got to find a couple of keystone changes that [Obama] can make, and make them before he [stops] being president," Monteiro says. "We won't see all of the benefits while he is president. But if he can just move the institution, we can get some momentum behind it.”