Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blacks And President Obama: End the Love Affair?

Houston-based writer Michael Arceneaux urges blacks to end their love affair with President Obama. In an article published by The Root, Arceneaux contends that blacks treat Obama like a "boyfriend," rather than a president. He urges blacks to become more critical of Obama's policies and to accept reasonable arguments from other blacks who criticize the president.

Black support for Obama remains relatively high. While the overall public support for Obama has fallen below 40 percent (a number which shows erosion of happiness among Democrats), black approval ratings for Obama remain around 85%. Nevertheless, despite these high approval ratings, the economic conditions within communities of color are quite dreadful.

The recession has wiped out all of the gains in black wealth over the last 20 years, and black unemployment is about 3 times the rate for whites. Yet, Obama has agreed to a debt-ceiling compromise that will reduce government spending and make an economic recovery even more difficult.

Furthermore, while Obama frequently talks about the plight of the "middle class," he rarely mentions the poor or working poor in his speeches. When Obama wants to talk about unemployment and jobs, he travels to Ohio, but he does not go to East St. Louis or SE Washington, DC to hold a similar conversation. Although the disappearance of jobs in the industrial Midwest has definitely affected blacks, black urban poverty is a different social structure than poverty in the rust belt (see update below this blog post).

In the past, I watched with amazement the emotional reaction that Obama generated in people. I often described myself as a "designated driver," or someone who approached him soberly as a politician -- rather than a larger-than-life symbol of greatness and progress. When other blacks, however, criticized Obama, they often received condemnation. Persons ranging from Revered Wright, Tavis Smiley, Maya Angelou and Cornell West have received fervent criticism from blacks for either taking issue with President Obama or, as in the case of Angelou, supporting his competitor Hillary Clinton.

I believe that Obama raises a lot of complex issues for blacks. First, he is a symbolic figure of racial progress; accordingly, blacks feel happy about his presidency. Second, he is also often a victim of racism, which causes blacks to act defensively on his behalf (even exaggerating some claims in my opinion).

Despite these facts, racial allegiances should not cloud blacks' judgment about social and economic betterment. The fact that Obama is a symbol of progress means very little for persons who live daily in poverty, crime-ridden neighborhoods and whose children attend the most neglected schools in the nation. Moreover, defending Obama against racism from rightwing bigots will not change these substantive conditions of inequality.

So, I recommend a more sophisticated usage of race politics by blacks. Race remains important in American society -- as a battery of social statistics reveals. But an amorphous sense of racial pride should not render blacks silent in the face of policies that ignore their most pressing interests.

Unless blacks begin to treat Obama as a politician, then he will have no incentive to change his approach on issues related to race and poverty. If he can maintain nearly unanimous support among blacks simply by being a symbol of racial progress, then he need not take any political risks in order to deliver concrete -- rather than symbolic -- change.


I discovered an interesting proposal by Senator Gillibrand that addresses one of the issues discussed in this blog post: urban poverty. Gillibrand has proposed the Urban Jobs Act, which, if passed, would allocate money to help "at-risk" youth in Americas large cities obtain jobs. Gillibrand cites statistics showing the extremely high unemployment rates among black and Latino youths. The article does not mention whether President Obama supports the legislation. It also does not indicate that he had anything to do with proposing it.

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