President Barack Obama greets a crowd of supporters. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Some say he ignored blacks’ needs in his first term. Here’s what Sharpton and others hope for now.
by Keli Goff, The Root
(The Root) — President Barack Obama has been a target of endless criticism since taking office, most notably from conservative corners, as well as from some blatant racists. But despite the nearly universal support he enjoyed among African Americans in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, some of his most impassioned critics have come from within the black community, and some of their most passionate criticism has focused on the concern that the first black president has not focused on addressing issues of particular importance to the black community or on successfully tackling a black agenda. The Congressional Black Caucus was especially critical of the Obama administration’s silence on black unemployment, for instance.
The question now emerging since the president’s decisive re-election is whether we’ll see greater focus on issues of particular importance to the black community in the second Obama term, and if so, which issues.
Frustration in Some Corners
After the 2012 election Yvette Carnell wrote in the Black Agenda Report, “Now we are all left hoping and wishing that, for the sake of his legacy, President Obama doesn’t forget about us during his second term. The smart thing to do would’ve been to secure something, such as legislation to reduce black unemployment or mass incarceration, before the election, but we weren’t smart. We were tribal.”
In a piece for the L.A. Progressive titled “Black America Calling for a ‘Black Agenda,’ ” Anthony Asadullah Samad wrote, “Of course, we know he’s President of all the people. We got that, but what is the real significance of laying claim to the first African American president if a core constituency cannot ask for anything?”
He then continued, “What are ‘black issues’? Historically, they are jobs, education, health care, prison re-entry and economic development of deprived communities — all issues listed in Smiley’s covenant.” Samad was referring to PBS host Tavis Smiley, whose relentless criticism of the president’s leadership on poverty and issues important to the black community has made him a target of criticism.
For instance, during one of his shows Smiley pointedly challenged Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee on whether President Obama would ever get away with exhorting other communities to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying,” as he said to the Congressional Black Caucus during a speech last year. “Would the president ever say to an audience of our Jewish brothers and sisters, concerned about the crisis in the Middle East, ‘stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying’?” Smiley posed to Jackson Lee. “[Would he say] to our Hispanic brothers and sisters on immigration and their concerns, ‘stop grumbling, stop complaining, stop crying’? Did he say to gays and lesbians, ‘stop grumbling, stop complaining, stop crying’? How does he get away with saying this to black folk when he would never, ever form his lips to say that to any other constituency?”
Hopefulness in Other Quarters
Among those who have disagreed with Smiley’s criticisms of the president is civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton. The host of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation has previously criticized those who have condemned President Obama’s commitment to issues central to black Americans, while celebrating white presidents who have done less.
In a BET town hall debate Sharpton noted that many black Americans referred to Bill Clinton as “the first black president” while some of his policies were harmful to the black community, yet these same black Americans criticize President Obama with abandon. In an emailed statement to The Root, Sharpton cited unemployment among people of color, the education achievement gap between black and white students, racial profiling and judicial inequities as issues of hyper-importance to black Americans that he hopes will make even greater progress in a second Obama term.
“President Obama has provided 72 straight months of increased [numbers of] private sector jobs,” Sharpton wrote, “and now the Obama administration must fight the Republicans to increase public sector jobs, where blacks and Latinos work disproportionately. The administration must also force private companies to hire more blacks and Latinos.” He also cited the Trayvon Martin tragedy as a reminder of why the president must make equal protection under the law and inequity in the criminal justice system for black Americans an ongoing priority.
Progressive radio host Mark Thompson of SIRIUS XM’s “Make It Plain” show is among those who expect to see more vocal commitment from President Obama for a black agenda in a second term. Thompson, who is African American, recently moderated the State of the Black World Conference town hall at Howard University, which focused specifically on the presidential election’s impact on black America.
Speaking to The Root, Thompson said, “The Obama administration, in its second term, has a duty to specifically address the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, the African-American base.” When asked if some black criticism of the president regarding a so-called black agenda has been unfair, Thompson replied, “Some have gone too far, and the criticism has gone from political to personal. But we need to solve the riddle of how African Americans support Democrats and not have Democrats take us for granted, knowing we have nowhere else to go.”
Thompson argued that vocal black critics of the president seem to have forgotten that he is not treating black Americans any worse than white Democrats before him. But when asked if it is fair for black Americans to expect more of President Obama because he is black, Thompson replied yes.
Imagining the Possibilities
Thompson’s vision is thus: “Because he’s an extraordinary transformative figure, President Obama should be able to unapologetically address the specific concerns of his own community and set a precedent for African Americans no longer being taken for granted by Democratic party politicians.” Elaborating on the transformative impact the president could have were he to make the black community a focal point of his second term, Thompson pointed out that black civil rights groups and a number of black Americans followed President Obama’s lead on same-sex marriage once he specifically affirmed his support for it.
This is an example of the “transformative influence of this president,” Thompson added. “Imagine if he used it directly for our community.”
Thompson emphasized the word “directly,” explaining that while the administration has implemented policies that have helped African Americans, the black community has not received nearly as much as direct acknowledgment as other communities comprising the Democratic base, such as Latinos and the LGBT community. Though Obama is not the first Democratic president to do this, he said, Thompson is hopeful that the precedent will end should Obama embrace black causes more directly in a second term.
One challenge the president faces was mentioned by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a September 2012 interview with The Root. “I think this administration feels far more comfortable in dealing with LGBT or Latino issues because they will never be accused of embracing those issues more than others of the American public. But the moment the president says ‘black,’ they will begin to call him H. Rapp Brown and Eldridge Cleaver and [say], ‘he’s a member of the Black Panther Party,’ ” observed Cleaver. “The next African-American president will not be encumbered with that kind of weight on his or her shoulders.”
Mark Thompson shared an anecdote to illustrate the paralyzing impact this kind of thinking among black Americans who break barriers can have on the community. He recalled that John Thompson, the first black coach to lead a major college team to a national basketball championship, told him that while he worked hard to increase the diversity of referees, he worried that black referees would feel pressured to prove they were not biased in his favor and as a result his team may face unfair calls.
Mark Thompson speculated that whether it’s Obama or a black manager in the workplace, this fear ends up clouding what African Americans expect of each other. Sometimes the fear is founded. Sometimes it is not.
In an interview with The Root, Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam News, the oldest black newspaper in New York, expressed hope that she will see the president press more of a black agenda in this term than he did in the last. “I really don’t believe there was a black agenda in the first term,” she said. “There was an agenda focused on poor people but not specific to black people, although [the policies] impacted black people in poor communities.”
Tatum cited education, jobs and addressing health care disparities beyond the scope of Obamacare as parts of the black agenda she would like to see addressed, now that Obama has secured another four years. “What I want to see in a second term,” she said, “is the president taking hold of who he is and translating that into action for people of color in this country. He has more of a luxury of being a black president now than he did in the first term. So now I want to see him be more of a black president than a president who happens to be black.”