Should Obama do more for black America?

He need not ‘ballyhoo’ a ‘black agenda’ but solving problems that affect African-Americans would strengthen the US as a whole

Over the past week, the recording of an on-air argument between Reverend Al Sharpton, the prominent civil rights leader, and Tavis Smiley, a well-known African-American media personality, has been circulating in the black US media. Sharpton and Smiley’s public fight has brought to the fore a significant issue that has been emerging as a key point of discussion over the past year: whether or not President Obama is doing enough for black people.

Smiley, who has been highly critical of President Obama for quite some time, believes that the president is not doing enough for African-Americans and that African-American leaders are giving him “a pass” for not doing so. Sharpton, who advises the president on education issues, believes that the president is doing what he needs to do. During an interview on MSNBC this week, Sharpton pointed to the fact that just last week, for example, President Obama signed a bill supporting historically black colleges and universities. Sharpton also believes that the president need not “ballyhoo” – that is, publicly push – a black agenda. The question at the heart of this debate is whether or not president Obama should champion a “black agenda” at all?

In reality, there are more than a few valid and pressing reasons for a specific black agenda. The current unemployment rate for African-Americans has leapt to 17.3%. This is in comparison to 9.7% for white Americans. African-American unemployment – which is typically higher than average anyway – has become a chronic problem, going far beyond just being the effects of a recession. Before the recession, the higher than average unemployment rate was written off as just the way things were, even by President Obama. Now, however, it is clear that it cannot be ignored.

The rate of foreclosures in African-American communities is disproportionately large, negatively impacting African-American wealth, the bulk of which comes from home ownership. Education is another area where black children are being massively underserved with more black children attending “high poverty” schools with poor facilities and less qualified teachers, than any other group, and more likely to receive a second-rate education. When it comes to healthcare, African-Americans are massively overrepresented in death rates from a variety of treatable and preventable diseases and illnesses, even if they suffer from them less. It is likely that a new healthcare plan, especially one that contains no public option, will make little difference for African-Americans. The hard facts tell you that this community requires a concerted effort.

Superficially it makes sense to say that addressing education, healthcare and the economy in general is enough. That view assumes, however, that general initiatives such as the stimulus actually reach and/or impact the hardest hit people. It also assumes that all communities have the same needs, and that a one-size-fits-all approach works. Yet, studies continue to show that this is not the case. According to a study released by the Kirwan Institute in February (pdf), “The stimulus did not go far enough in terms of marginalised communities, and it lacked transparency and accountability in regard to racial equity. Because people are situated differently, groups in declining urban centres with lower access to job creation face different needs for well-targeted investments in critical community infrastructure such as transit, schools, and parks and development of new recruitment and training standards that help new workers secure jobs.”

Solving the issues that affect African-Americans strengthens America as a whole, since chronic unemployment, foreclosures and healthcare issues have not only a cultural and societal impact but an economic one. Racially-based health disparities, for example, cost America $229bn between 2003 and 2006. As Kathleen Sebelius has said, reducing such disparities: ” … makes [America] a healthier and more prosperous nation”.

Obama is not required to tackle this issue just because he is an African-American president. This is a job for him to do because he is the US president. Any society which ignores, or overlooks, those of its citizens who are not doing well is a society that cannot function to its full potential.

President Obama was elected in order to make a difference and to change the status quo. These persistent issues are part of that status quo. Transformation of African-American issues is not something that Obama can solve on his own and there’s no doubt that he requires the support of not only civil rights leaders and organisations but of individuals as well. Sharpton is right to say he doesn’t need to “ballyhoo” a black agenda, but he does need to do something.

In truth, though, this is not just about black people. This is about the underlying and continued systems of disenfranchisement, poverty, and inequality in America. Unfortunately, many of President Obama’s initiatives do not uplift those who need the most support, not just to weather the storms of an economic crisis, but over time. These root causes may disproportionately impact African-Americans, but they undermine American society as a whole. President Obama should focus on a black agenda, yes. He would be failing all Americans if the African-American community does not find itself in a better place than when he came in.

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