President Obama on the State of Black America: No Mention of Racism

Well, President Obama has been in office just 11 months, and people are now making broad judgments about his efforts so far. He already has done more than Bush did in eight years to move the country in a progressive direction, in spite of all that remains to get this ship of state back to some semblance of democracy and humanity.

One set of issues now cropping up involves “what has he done for black Americans?” Given that no group supported him as overwhelmingly as black Americans, that is an excellent question. And it has been one of the last ones to be raised lately, it appears. At Politico, one article by Carol Lee a few days back raised a set of issues along this line. It begins thus:

President Barack Obama deflected criticism Monday that he has not been attentive enough to the African-American community, telling American Urban Radio Networks that he was unconcerned to see that kind of message coming from former supporters such as actor Danny Glover.

President Obama said that Glover was just one of few discontented folks, that most black actors supported him so far, and also cited his support from black Americans in the polls. He was asked these questions, significantly, by one of the very few reporters (April Ryan) in the White House press corps, with whom he had a rare one-on-one interview. He is certainly accurate about the polls. Interestingly, Politico does not link to the full interview, and thus ignores the full question asked by April Ryan, which was much deeper and probing:

Speaking of the African American community, this seems to be a shift in black leadership, as it relates to supporting you. You have the CBC that’s upset with you about targeting on the jobs front — African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America 10 percent. Then you have black actors who supported you — Danny Glover, who’s saying that you’ve not changed, your administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African American President, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?

He made an interesting comment to Ryan’s question, to quote Politico again:

“Is there grumbling?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course, there’s grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” “We were some of the folks who were most affected by predatory lending. There’s a long history of us being the last hired and the first fired. As I said on health care, we’re the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health care plans,” Obama said. “So, should people be satisfied? Absolutely not. But let’s take a look at what I’ve done.”

Right on point, so far as I can see. Black Americans and other Americans of color have taken harder hits from this Bush Depression than have white Americans as a group. And Obama inherited almost all the Depression problem. You can raise serious questions about the white team he has advising him on the economy, but not about that he inherited this problem. Politico notes too that

Obama repeatedly used the pronoun “we” in discussing America’s black community, but insisted that he shouldn’t be expected to target policies exclusively to African-Americans. “The only thing I cannot do is, by law I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks,” Obama said. “I’m the president of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community.”

The “we” is indeed revealing. This is the first case since 1789 where black Americans could really be part of a strong “we” statement from the head of state. Interestingly, again, Politico leaves out a lot of substance that Obama gives about his take on the “state of black America” in replying to Ryan:

I think this continues to be the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, I think it’s the best of times in the sense that never has there been more opportunity for African Americans who have received a good education and are in a position then to walk through the doors that are opened. And, obviously, you and me sitting here in the Oval Office is a testament to that. I think it’s the worst of times in the sense that unemployment and the lack of opportunity, particularly in some cities, has never been worse. I mean, you look at a city like Detroit where you used to have an enormous African American middle class built on the auto industry — that city is in hard, hard times right now. Now, just going back to the point you raised earlier about our responsiveness to the African American community, imagine what Detroit would look like if we hadn’t stepped in to make sure that GM stayed open. . . . [However,] if you’ve got double digit unemployment in cities like that, we’re going to have to make some special efforts, and it starts with early childhood education; it starts with education generally. That’s why I’m putting such a big emphasis on that. But it also means that every federal agency has to make sure that the assistance that’s being made available to the general population is targeting those hard to reach places, so that they are also benefiting from our overall efforts to lift up the economy.

Eloquently put, clearly, but it is striking that at no point in this interview does President Obama note the widespread racial discrimination facing black Americans in housing, employment, education, and policing, and he does not even touch on the critical need of these “federal agencies” to enforce aggressively the (now mostly weakly enforced) U.S. civil rights laws. He continues to use language that plays into the soft version of the white racial frame, language about education and socioeconomic conditions that does not frighten off moderate or liberal whites.

In our recent book Adia and I point out that this playing to moderate/liberal white sentiments was true, with only one major exception, during his entire presidential campaign. In a “post-racial American,” a black President still cannot openly and candidly address a/the central problem facing African Americans—and indeed all Americans: Systemic White-Imposed Racism and its many facets and impacts.