What has Obama done for African Americans?

May 19, 2011

With liberals and their organizations already gearing up for the 2012 election, we have to counter with the truth about Barack Obama's disasterous first years in office.

WHEN DO you know election season is upon us? When the Obama administration announces an aggressive campaign aimed at organizing 100 meetings and engaging 1 million voters in African American communities across the U.S. The Obama administration has even launched a page on the White House website aimed at Black voters.

Usually, the administration just ignores Black people and the devastating impact of the recession on African American communities during the two-and-a-half years since Obama became president. There have been barely audible complaints from the Congressional Black Caucus about Obama's insistence that there's nothing particular he can do for African Americans, despite the fact that they are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the economic crisis.

But it's never too late to shore up a voting bloc that ensured Obama's historic victory in 2008. According to Michael Blake, the administration's newly designated liaison to African Americans: "We're crisscrossing the country and taking our stories directly to people about how the African-American community is benefiting from the Obama administration...For those who say we don't have a Black agenda, I would challenge them and ask, 'How are our policies not helping the African-American community?'"

Blake's question reflects how utterly out of touch the Obama administration is with the impact of the crisis in Black communities:

Despite media enthusiasm for the supposed economic recovery, Black unemployment has gone from 15.3 percent in February to 16.1 percent in April. The percentage of Black adult men who are employed fell to just 56.9 percent last month, the lowest level since statistics started being kept in the 1970s.

In Obama's hometown of Chicago, more than 300,000 African Americans live under the official poverty line. Nationally, 26 percent of Blacks live in poverty.

More than 8 percent of African Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure since the beginning of the recession, compared to 4.5 percent of whites. Some 21 percent of African American homeowners are at "imminent risk" for foreclosure. Moreover, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, the depreciation of property values because of proximity to foreclosed homes will drain another $194 billion from African American neighborhoods.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking on "Out on the street: The housing crisis and the movement against foreclosures." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

Far from "benefiting" African American communities, Obama's policies--shaped largely by neoliberalism and the idea that privatization of public services is preferable to an expansion of the state, even in times of dire economic crisis--have been particularly harmful to Black communities that were already reeling from years of rotten conditions, both before and after the economic crisis hit.

THE STATISTICS on poverty and unemployment are only the tip of the iceberg. The current Congressional wrangling over how much of social spending to cut, combined with the relentless drive to privatize public services, threatens to compound and exacerbate the existing problems facing the poor across the country, but especially African Americans.

For example, the attack on public education and teachers' unions will undermine African American access to public education. Take Detroit, for example, where state officials are forcing the closure of half of the public schools in an almost exclusively Black city. Officials have admitted this will lead to classrooms of up to 60 students. No one in their right mind thinks any teaching or learning can happen in classrooms that size, but because these are mostly poor Black children, it's permissible.

What's more, the attack on teachers' unions, with the specific focus on unraveling tenure protections and seniority, will have a disproportionate impact on Black teachers who are concentrated in under-funded urban school districts.

In fact, most of the attacks on public-sector workers on the local, state and federal level have a disproportionate impact on African American workers who have, for the last 40 years, relied on the public sector to hire when the private sector would not.

The same is true in the realm of housing, where the Obama administration's suggested budget cuts will lead to greater insecurity at a time when housing assistance is most needed. The Obama budget proposes a $1 billion cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget and a massive cut to a heating assistance program for the poor.

While the Democrats will tell us it's Republicans who are hell-bent on destroying the lives of ordinary people, both parties, including the Obama administration, accept that budget cuts are going to have to be a way of life. For example, on the White House's new website targeting African Americans, in a document called "Winning the Future for African American Families," the first paragraph reads in part:

We must restore fiscal responsibility and reform our government to make it more effective, efficient and open to the American people. The President's 2012 Budget is a responsible approach that puts the nation on a path to live within our means so we can invest in our future--by cutting wasteful spending and making tough choices on some things we cannot afford.

Of course, "fiscal responsibility" always comes at the expense of programs that are indispensable for the poor and working class, but this is a particularly heartless pledge for communities that are facing historic levels of unemployment and poverty. Workers are constantly being told by the millionaires and billionaires who run the government that we have to become accustomed to doing more with less and--that most dreadful of political slogans--"share the sacrifice."

DESPITE THE continued rightward drift of the Obama administration and its effect on Black communities, prominent Black liberals and liberal organizations have mostly stayed quiet, significantly muted their complaints or, in the case of the Rev. Al Sharpton, defended the administration wholeheartedly. Sharpton, who has been put on Obama's payroll, insists that Obama has no particular obligation to deal with specifically Black issues in the current economy.

While there have been some notable exceptions like Princeton professor Cornel West and social commentator Michael Eric Dyson, the silence from Black liberal figures has been deafening. For example, while the NAACP last fall organized the One Nation protest in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against economic inequality, this became merely a tool to mobilize a disaffected base for the November midterm elections. There has been no further attempt at any mobilizations.

Even Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been known to have a tense relationship with Obama, joined in the hoopla surrounding the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden. Despite the assassination coming days after further grim economic news for African Americans, Jackson came out with a glowing statement about how bin Laden's murder was a "huge psychological victory...and a cause for celebration."

The fact that capturing or killing Bin Laden has been the pretext for wars and occupations, hundreds of thousands murdered and maimed, and more than $1 trillion wasted from the Treasury was worth it for both Jackson and Sharpton. Sharpton added, "It says he can see the bigger picture, and that he knows how to be cool under fire."

Sharpton deserves to lose all credibility as an activist who is serious about advocating for Black rights in a racist society. He recently invited Obama and a who's who from Obama's cabinet--including job-cutter and public education-gutter Education Secretary Arne Duncan--to participate in the national convention of his National Action Network.

Shamefully, Obama once again blamed African Americans for their own unemployment, saying, "We have to work much harder as a people. We have to step up our game. If we want to attract new jobs and opportunities, we have to make sure we can out-compete the rest of the world." As if 16 percent Black unemployment are because Black folks aren't "stepping up their game." If this is the best that "Black politics" has to offer, then the picture is pretty bleak.

But Black politics has never been just about the machinations of Black elected officials or the maneuvers of professional liberals whose main goal in their political lives is to get a "seat at the table." Black politics has also been about the mobilizing and organizing abilities of ordinary African Americans to challenge the inherent racism and inequality that pervades the U.S.

As the professional liberals and their organizations begin to gear up with stories of how the 2012 election will be the "most important of our lifetime" and how the lunatics of the Republican Party want to turn back the clock, we have to counter with the facts: the first years of the Obama administration have been a disaster for Black communities across the country. Despite the Democratic Party controlling the White House and Congress for two years, Black unemployment and home foreclosures reached historic highs.

We need to organize for independent politics and organization--and an alternative to the regular ritual of voting for Democrats who not only lie about how they will fix social problems, but then concede political ground to the right and make those problems worse.

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