President Obama, What Have You Done For Me Lately?
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In the heat of the election campaign, BET began running an anti-Obama ad sponsored by Pivot Point, a conservative PAC. In the ad, two young African Americans ask, as Janet Jackson famously put it, “What have you done for me lately?” They criticize the president for cutting aid to black colleges, and say, “His support of gay marriage is a slap in the face for people of faith.”
Wayne Perryman, an African American, Washington-state-based pastor, worked with the PAC to create the ad.
Perryman feels that African Americans are blindly supporting Barack Obama, simply because he is black, and that they should not support the president in his bid for reelection because he has done little to address the specific needs of African Americans during his four years in office.
“Our communities are in deplorable condition. Sometimes I watch TV and weep,” says Perryman. “African Americans are so loyal to a party and a black man that they ignore the condition of their people. Everyone had hope that with this first black president our issues would be addressed, but [Obama] blatantly turned against specific things that blacks had requested.”
It is true that the president falls short if you look solely at the statistics for poverty, education and incarceration—issues that most overwhelmingly affect African Americans. Though the unemployment figures dropped to 7.8 percent in September, that number is 13.4 percent for blacks. Twenty-eight percent of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of whites. More than 900,000 black men are incarcerated, and African Americans are more likely to attend high-poverty schools and less likely than any other group to attend college.
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But then, there is context. The black unemployment rate has for decades been almost double that of whites. The president has made efforts to improve educational opportunities for blacks: In February 2010, he signed an executive order granting $850 million in funding over the next 10 years for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and in July 2012, he established the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
To his critics, President Obama has said simply that he is not the president of black America, he is the president of the United States of America. By putting policies in place to help all Americans, he, by extension, is addressing the needs of blacks.
But talk show host and political commentator Tavis Smiley, who has for years criticized Obama for not doing more for the black community, argues that the president’s “a rising tide lifts all boats” approach is not the right one.
“If you are in a car accident and have a head trauma, the surgeon would not start operating on your feet, he would start at the part of the body where the injury is,” says Smiley. “African Americans are suffering disproportionately, we are the ones catching the most hell. We’re the ones with head trauma, and what do we get from the surgeon? He says, ‘I am not the surgeon for black folk, I am the surgeon for everybody.’”
It seems, to Perryman and others who share his view, that the president is reluctant to even mention race. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that in Obama’s first two years in office, he spoke about race less than any other Democrat since 1961.
The question people like Perryman ask is, what is he afraid of?
Saideh Browne’s grandmother taught her that there are two things one shouldn’t discuss in public—religion, and politics—and so Browne and her family discuss politics during Sunday dinner at her grandmother’s northern New Jersey house. But even in private, such discussions are not safe, as Browne’s disapproval of the president’s performance has actually caused a rift between her and her relatives.
“If we didn’t have hope in anyone else, we had hope in [Obama],” says Browne, 41. “We expect the Clintons and the Bushes to do us dirty, but at least with Obama we thought we would get something. But he wouldn’t even say ‘hello’ to us!”
Browne is so disappointed with the president that she was planning not to vote. She says Obama missed countless opportunities to speak about race relations, and racism, which is essentially the root cause of the issues plaguing the black community.
Case in point, the case of Henry Louis Gates Jr. In 2009, Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct by Cambridge, Mass., police officers who were responding to calls of a possible break-in at Gates’ home. Gates, who was simply trying to enter his own house, called Cambridge Police Sgt. Joseph Crowley racist, and said he was being harassed because he was a “black man in America.”
The arrest made the news, and President Obama weighed in, saying: “The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home…what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
A few days later, the president said that he should have worded his message differently, and that both the officer and Gates likely overreacted.
“The president said the police acted stupidly. Thank you! Then the next day he said ‘I misspoke,’” says Browne. “What do you mean you misspoke? Then [Obama] belittled the situation by having the officer at the White House for a beer. He could have used his oratory skills to have a dialogue on race relations. Go up to Boston, which is a very racist city, and sit down and hash this out!”
Browne says her family thinks that she has a skewed view of the president because she grew up in an affluent part of New York City, attended private schools, and has basically just been around too many white people.
“Their explanation for [the president] not speaking directly to us is that if he did, “they” would get him,” says Browne. “Who is “they” and aren’t people out to get him anyway? I believe he doesn't speak to blacks because he doesn't have to.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Perryman, who feels that the president has attended to the needs of other groups—women and the LGBT community, for instance—because he knows he needs to earn their votes.
Perryman says that African Americans have been ignored because they don’t demand attention, as other groups do.
“The only ones who don’t complain are African Americans,” he says. “The gays don’t need our help, the Latinos will get immigration reform, and when everyone walks away with the table, everyone will have something and just leave the blacks to clean up the table.”
Like Perryman, many Republicans have campaigned using the refrain that while they are willing to work for the black vote, Democrats simply expect it.
“The race hustlers, the Jacksons, the Sharptons have been complaining and moaning and whining about the same stuff for 50 years,” said Rush Limbaugh in July. “None of it’s getting better. And yet they keep voting for the people who have assured them, ‘We’re gonna take care of you. We’re the ones that are gonna protect you from the racism and from the discrimination, from all the other stuff, all those horrors that await you out there.’”
Perryman says that while the president courted blacks in 2008, it is clear he is taking the black community for granted this election.
“The president came to Seattle in 2008, and my church choir provided music. Now, he doesn’t come to inner city. When he comes to Seattle, he goes to Medina, with the millionaires and billionaires, and holds expensive dinners,” says Perryman.
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Rev. Al Sharpton says that the president is being held to an unfair and impossible standard, simply because of his race.
“Some of the critics that want the president to have a black agenda never asked Bill Clinton to have one, never asked Jimmy Carter to have one,” says Sharpton. “If we have different rules for a white man in the White House than a black man in the White House, then we have a different standard. I am asking of President Obama the same thing I am asking of any other president, to do policies to help black people and give us access.”
Sharpton says that the president has in fact focused on issues that affect black Americans—for instance, the healthcare act mandates coverage for people who have pre-existing conditions, which African Americans do, in disproportionate numbers—but that it is foolish to think that he would accomplish much if he blatantly stated that he was targeting African Americans.
“If [the president] announced a black agenda, he wouldn’t be able to get it done; he hasn’t been able to pass an agenda for all Americans!” says Sharpton. “The minute he identifies it as an African American issue, his opposition will jump all over him, and us, and we suffer. I think it would be to give us an emotional uplift for a tangible let down, and black people are not that stupid.”
As an example, Sharpton said that people told him to go to the president for help getting charges against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case.
“It would have been good headlines for me and for the president,” says Sharpton, “but Zimmerman would have been able to go to court and say this is politics, not law, and we would have been hurting the Martin family.”
Smiley says that the idea that he is holding the president to a different standard than past presidents is “preposterous.”
“I am holding him accountable,” says Smiley. “I am going to break my neck to get Barack Obama elected, and after the brother is re-elected, I will break dance all over Washington and the very next day become his number one critic.”
In 2008, 96 percent of African American voters supported Barack Obama and experts say that, despite the grumbling about the president’s lack of a black agenda, those numbers will look pretty much the same when people head to the polls next week.
Browne will be voting too—her husband threatened to stop speaking to her if she didn’t vote—but she is expecting far more from President Obama over the next four years if he is re-elected.
“You don’t have to pick up our cross to bear. We know you can’t have Black Panthers in the White House,” says Browne. “But in the same way Hillary [Clinton] spoke to women, we want you to speak to us. Have a town hall with African Americans to hear our issues, because at that point, we get a chance to feel like our voices are being heard.”
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