Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


U.S. politics

America's first black President hasn't done enough for black Americans Add to ...

On Sunday, the presidential motorcade made a remarkable detour east of the Anacostia River, as the Obamas popped in for an Easter service at southeast Washington's Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Just a few days earlier, the deadliest drive-by shooting in years had taken five lives in the same neighbourhood, a woe-begotten quarter known for its sorry superlatives, which include the city's highest rates of murder, poverty and single-parent households.

African-Americans also account for more than 90 per cent of southeast Washington's residents and Barack Obama's visit was another example of how, when it comes to the still volatile issue of race, the first black President has tread cautiously - too much so for many black Americans.

By attending the service, where he sang and swayed with the rest of the congregation, Mr. Obama pointedly reminded Americans of his own complicated trajectory: raised by a white mother and grandparents, appropriating his black identity only after a wrenching voyage of self-examination.

Yet, in office, he has drawn attention to the race issue only carefully and occasionally and, as New Yorker editor David Remnick states in his newly published biography of the President, he has above all done so on his own terms. What he has emphatically not done is use the power of the presidency to usher in a New Deal for African-Americans.

This has been a source of consternation for many members of the black community, who expected more activist policies that would single out African-Americans for special treatment. With an unemployment rate among black Americans of 16.5 per cent (compared with 8.8 per cent for whites), the 42-member Black Congressional Caucus has chastised Mr. Obama for failing to adopt measures aimed specifically at creating jobs for African-Americans.

PBS talk-show host and political commentator Tavis Smiley has emerged as one of the President's most steadfast critics, arguing that "because black people are suffering disproportionately, it requires a disproportionate response."

Mr. Obama has answered back by insisting that he "can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks" and that a "rising tide lifts all boats." The White House has stressed that the economic stimulus package, the health-care reform bill passed last month, a proposed new Consumer Financial Protection Agency and an overhaul of the federal student loan program are all policies that are of particular, if not exclusive, benefit to African-Americans.

Still, the President who on election night spoke of bending the "arc of history" to erase inequality in the United States has steered clear of drawing Americans into the broad discussion of race that must precede any attempt to correct the systemic injustices responsible for the persistent existence of a black underclass.

"The fact that he has to navigate that issue says more about the state of the country than it does about his own political calculations," Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, opined in an interview. "He's been very consistent with what he was in the campaign. It's just that we tended to green-screen him."

Indeed, during the 2008 contest, many Americans (including those in the media) imagined Mr. Obama against the backdrop of their choosing. They projected their hopes for a post-racial America on to him. Or as Mark Salter, an adviser to the John McCain campaign, told Mr. Remnick: "The truth is, all that will be remembered of the campaign was that America's original sin was finally expunged."

Not all Americans saw it that way, of course. The resentment toward the first black American President simmered below the surface until the summer of 2009. But shortly after Mr. Obama jumped the gun by accusing police in Cambridge, Mass., of acting "stupidly" in arresting a black Harvard professor trying to enter his own home - in other words, shortly after Mr. Obama actively drew attention to the race issue - that resentment erupted in all its ugliness at Tea Parties across the nation.

In Mr. Remnick's The Bridge - named after the structure in Selma, Ala., where civil rights demonstrators were beaten by police in 1965, and where candidate Obama marked the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2007 - Mr. Obama is remarkably indulgent toward those Americans who still have a hard time swallowing the idea of a black President. He even likens it to the fear factory workers express in the face of economic transformation.

"They think, in some fashion, that it will disadvantage them or, in some sense, diminishes the past," he told Mr. Remnick. "I tend to be fairly forgiving about the anxiety that people feel about change because I think, if you're human, you recognize that in yourself."

Rather than being an agent of change, however, Mr. Obama identifies himself as its beneficiary. Progress toward racial equality, he told Mr. Remnick, "preceded the election … facilitated the election."

It's not just African-Americans who are still waiting for the progress they expected would come after it.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular