(Note: edited version, “Obama and Black America: Who Has Whose Back?”’ published in August 2011 edition of The Progressive | updated data -WashPost/ABC News Poll: Big Drop In Black Support For President Obama )
“I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul.”
—Martin Luther King, “Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957
I ran into Congressman Jim Clyburn at Brookland Baptist Church, here in Columbia, during the 2010 midterm election season while campaigning with South Carolina Green Party senate candidate Tom Clements. As we all exchanged pleasantries, I jokingly mentioned to Jim that I had gotten his campaign mail with the picture of him and President Barack Obama on it. He seemed genuinely pleased, so much so that he walked me over to check out the special poster he had at his campaign material table. The poster was also of Clyburn with the commander-in-chief. Clyburn appears to be making a point in the President’s ear. Obama looks and leans as though he’s listening. The U.S. flag is in the background. At the bottom of the poster read the caption: “JIM HAS THE PRESIDENT’S EAR, AND WE MUST HAVE THEIR BACKS!!!”
Clyburn didn’t really need Obama’s help in getting reelected in his safe district, which is 57 percent African American. And he’s never had any serious opposition to his seat. But it would have taken some help from Obama for him to keep his spot as the second-ranking Democrat in the House after the drubbing their party took in the midterm elections. That help was not forthcoming. When the dust settled, Clyburn wasn’t even offered the minority whip job, which went to Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Clyburn was given the new title of assistant Democratic leader. Clyburn has fewer staff than before, he is no longer involved in vote-counting, nor is he a key party messenger. Clyburn’s demotion has not sat well with the Congressional Black Caucus, which he used to chair. But it typifies Obama’s indifference to African Americans across the board.
Last December, when he was polling in the mid-nineties among blacks, during a White House press conference a black reporter asked Obama about grumblings among the black leadership. He replied: “I think if you look at the polling, in terms of the attitudes of the African-American community, there’s overwhelming support for what we’ve tried to do.”
Yet even as he boasted, that same month the black unemployment rose from 15.7 percent to 16 percent, almost double the Dec. 9% national rate (Aug 2011- 9.1%). Black male unemployment rose from 16.3 percent to 16.7 percent as 1.3 million black men were out of work. For black women it jumped from 12.7 percent to 13.1, or roughly 1.2 million unemployed black women. And the unemployment rate for black teens stood at a staggering 46.5 percent (by contrast, the rate for white teenagers was 23.6 percent).
When Obama entered office, the black unemployment rate was 12.6 percent. But rising unemployment still didn’t dampen black optimism going into his second year. According to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll conducted Jan. 27-Feb. 9 of this year, 85 percent of blacks said they were optimistic about the future course of the economy while 72 percent of white held that view. Eighty-four percent of blacks felt hopeful about their personal financial situation, compared with 73 percent of whites.
Obama is right that the African American community gives him overwhelming support, but it’s not as overwhelming as it used to be. In the most recent polls blacks see “the economy” or unemployment as the nation’s top problem with one in seven or 2.9 million African Americans out of work — the highest number in nearly a quarter century. And some economists argue that 16%+ rate isn’t the “real” or accurate rate. They say that if one takes into account those people who want work and cannot get it and have stopped looking, those not counted such as the 900,000 incarcerated black men and women, and those recently released from the military– the “real” underemployment rate may be 25% or higher.
Back in 2008, nearly all (95 percent) black voters cast their ballot for Obama. Presently, they give him approval ratings just above 80 percent although there are polls with higher numbers.
Blacks still seem to have Obama’s back, but does he have theirs?
“The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2009. “It’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.” In response to criticism Obama said, “The only thing I cannot do is, by law. I cannot pass laws that say ‘I’m just helping black folks.’ I’m the president of the entire United States.”
Never mind that Obama dealt generously with some particular segments of the United States, bailing out the bankers and extending the Bush tax breaks to millionaires.
Given Obama’s record, you might think that there might be more political space for blacks to criticize the President. Not so. If you dare to tell it like it is, you instantly and unsparingly get bashed and called a “hater.”
I go on a lot of talk radio programs geared toward a black audience, and whenever I point out Obama’s flaws, this is what I get:
“We ought not to air our dirty laundry in public”
“We need to show a united front”
”Obama can’t do everything. He isn’t Superman”
“Obama is cleaning up the mess Bush left”
“He got health care passed”
“The Republicans won’t give him a break”
“The attack by the ‘birthers’ is an attack on black legitimacy, so we must defend him” “He’s not the president of black America; he’s the president of the United States of America”
“His family sure looks good. He and Michelle are good role models for our kids”
“It’s our fault the Obama presidency hasn’t kept its commitments. We need to ‘make him do it’
“Shut up and sit down and support the president, or there will be nothing he can do anyway….”
Morning syndicated radio show host Tom Joyner told his audience that blacks that criticize the president are “haters” and need to be quiet because he (Obama) doesn’t need the black vote to be split. Joyner asked, “What would it be like without a black man in office?” followed by, “If you don’t support him it will be much worse.”
In the face of what can only be described as a depression in the black community, it’s amazing that so many African Americans are cutting Obama so much slack. As a satellite radio personality quipped to me: “There’s a greater likelihood that Michelle Obama would leave Barack before some of his supporters!”
Princeton University professor Cornel West, who campaigned for Obama in 2008, kicked off a mini-firestorm and personal attacks against him when he called Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”
West was accused of “name-calling” and having a personal beef against Obama. Insults and names were hurled his way. Steve Harvey, actor-comedian and morning radio host called him and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, “Uncle Toms,” “monkey” and “poverty pimps” when the two announced their early Summer “Poverty Tour.” Joyner and Harvey ignored the fact that that they would have to look extremely hard to find any statement that Obama has ever made using the words “poverty” or “poor” in policy speeches.
West had made milder criticisms of Obama before, as had Harry Belafonte, who told Democracy Now this past Spring that Obama “sees no threat” from the left. “…Barack Obama has nothing to listen to, except his detractors and those who help pave the way to his own personal comfort with power—power contained, power misdirected, power not fully engaged. And it is our task to no longer have expectations of him, unless we have forced him to the table and he still resists us. And if he does that, then we know what else we have to do, is to make change completely. But I think he plays the game that he plays because he sees no threat from evidencing concerns for the poor. He sees no threat from evidencing a deeper concern for the needs of black people, as such. He feels no great threat from evidencing a greater policy towards the international community, for expressing thoughts that criticize the American position on things and turns that around. Until we do that, I think we’ll be forever disappointed in what that administration will deliver,” said Belafonte. He then told of an exchange he and Obama had on the campaign trial while running for his first term. “He was talking before businessmen on Wall Street here in—there in New York. And he said to me—I said, ‘Well, you know, I hope you bring the challenge more forcefully to the table.’ And he said, ‘Well, when are you and Cornel West going to cut me some slack?’ And I got caught with that remark. And I said to him, in rebuttal, I said, ‘What makes you think we haven’t?’ And the truth of the matter is that we were somewhat contained” in criticizing him because we wanted him to get elected.”
There is no good reason for “mainstream” leftwing black critics to contain themselves any longer. Radical progressives knew the game from jump street.
First of all, it is clear whom he is actually beholden to: Wall Street, corporations, the dirty energy industries, the Pentagon, and the power elite.
Second, despite rhetorical niceties, his foreign policy is not all that much different than Bush’s. He continues to keep troops in Iraq. He’s escalated the war in Afghanistan. He’s fighting clandestine wars in Pakistan and Yemen. He ramped up the U.S. program of political assassinations and drone warfare. And he sent U.S. bombers to pummel Libya and pave the way for the persecution and murder of dark-skinned Africans in that country.
And third, Obama has not improved the lives of African Americans and has shown no willingness to do so in the future.
Less than two months after signing those tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans into law, before the “debt ceiling” crisis, he signaled his willingness to let Republicans and right-wingers from his own party – the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known as the “Deficit-Reduction Commission” tinker with social security. For all Americans, the average life expectancy is 78 years and two months according to the Centers for Disease Control. But for black Americans life expectancy is 74 years and three months – for black women it’s 76.8 years, and black men 70.2 years. If Commission members had their way the retirement age for full benefits would be raised to 69 from 67 by 2075. Obviously, black males would be the biggest losers in such a setup, literally working till death.
At the moment, one in five blacks has no health insurance, compared to 12 percent of whites. And insurance companies routinely reject covering former inmates with the claim that they come from an “at-risk population.” One in seven African Americans is out of work— the highest in nearly a quarter century. More than two out of ten African Americans —and three out of ten black children— live in poverty. For every dollar of wealth owned by the typical white family, the typical family of color owns only sixteen cents, according to a study published last March by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development entitled ”Lifting As We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future.” Nearly half of all single black and Hispanic women have zero or negative wealth, meaning their debts exceed all their assets. The median wealth for single black women is only $100, for single Hispanic women, $120. This compares to just over $41,000 for single white women. About a third of single Hispanic women and one-fourth of single black women have no checking or savings account. Overall, blacks continue to earn far less than whites. The median annual income for a black household in 2009, the most recent year statistics were available, was $33,463 while for whites it was $54,671.
The foreclosure crisis hasn’t stopped creating black and brown victims. Fueled in part by rising unemployment and the fact that more than 50 percent of the home loans to African Americans and 40% to Latinos are subprime, conditions just keep getting worse. To begin with, blacks were 150 percent more likely to get high-cost loans. Even when they had “similar income and credit scores as white borrowers, blacks were about 30 percent more likely to be steered to expensive mortgages,” according to the Center for Responsible Lending. The CRL warns that one-third of families who received a subprime loan in 2005 and 2006 will ultimately lose their homes.
The mortgage market meltdown has stripped black families of more wealth than any single event in modern United States’ history: between $71 billion and $92 billion in the past three years. CRL estimates that blacks and Latinos will lose $194 and $177 billion in wealth, respectively, through 2012 due to the mortgage debacle. Blacks and Hispanics have lost most of the housing gains they made during the Clinton and Bush administration campaigns to boost minority homeownership. As a result, the “mortgage gap” between minorities and whites is almost as wide as it was two decades ago. The black homeownership rate plunged in 2010 to a thirteen-year low of 45 percent from a housing bubble peak of 49 percent. The share of Latinos owning a home fell to 48% from a high of 50%. While also down, the rate for whites lie at or around 74%. Predictably, with the market’s implosion, banks have all but abandoned those communities and customers. Prime lending in communities of color has decreased 60 percent while prime lending in white areas has fallen 28.4 percent within the last 3-year period.
Obama’s $75 billion Home Affordable Modification Program was an abysmal failure in addressing the foreclosure crisis in communities of color. About 5.4 million of the country’s 45 million home loans were delinquent or in some stage of the foreclosure process in the first three months of 2009, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Yet 4 million delinquent borrowers were not even eligible for HAMP. And, over one third of HAMP’s 1.24 million applicants dropped out of the program and most likely ended up in foreclosure and homelessness or houselessness. In April of last year, Elizabeth Warren, Obama’s jilted pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, while head of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to investigate TARP bailout, was critical of HAMP. Her panel’s report said: “Treasury’s programs [were] not keeping pace with the foreclosure crisis…. For every borrower who avoided foreclosure through HAMP last year, another 10 families lost their homes.” This even as the Federal Reserve Board reported that 2.25 million homeowners loss their homes in 2010 with predictions that 2.25 million would lose their homes in 2011 and another 2 million in 2012. Making matters worse, the Obama administration is supporting a reduction in the size of mortgages eligible for government backing, a move that could make it harder to get a home loan. The Administration is also proposing a winding down of government-sponsored housing agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Some suggest that the “proposal would collapse an already catastrophically distressed market.”
But the longer he is in office, the less he seems to care about the expanding crisis in communities of color and among the poor. The day after losing control of the House last November, Obama wasted no time agreeing with the tea party’s rallying cry that he had “lost contact” with the American people. Some took his concession speech to mean that he thought he had acted too progressively. And true to his political history, he bowed to the corporate power structure.
“I’ve got to take responsibility in terms of making sure that I make clear to the business community as well as to the country, that the most important thing we can do is to boost and encourage our business sector,” he said, as if the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program money he signed off on to the bankers wasn’t enough.
Soon after he struck a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts to the top 2 per cent for two more years—- which increased the federal deficit by $858 billion dollars – directly breaking his campaign promise. And he submitted a budget containing $4 trillion in budget cuts targeting “non-defense discretionary spending,” or programs that help the working poor and the most needy heat their homes, expands their access to to graduate-level education, put their kids in Head Start, summer jobs for youth, career development, after-school programs, child care, GED programs, affordable housing through cuts in Section 8 vouchers and public housing assistance, homelessness prevention, housing court advocacy, food pantries, and community service block grants.
“Rebuilding our economy on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans is something that I simply can not accept. I understand that now is the time for us as a nation to sacrifice in order to protect our children from a mountain of debt: however, I am struggling to understand how this budget helps us to best achieve this critical goal,” said Representative Emanuel Cleaver chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Yet many African Americans have accepted it. It could be that they don’t expect anything from Obama regarding their “civil rights.” In an April non-scientific online survey by Syracuse University economist Boyce D. Watkins, nearly two-thirds (62.3%) of respondents indicated that they “do not see President Obama as a civil rights leader.”
Maybe the CBC is cutting him slack to protect the billions of dollars in earmark money they are able to get into their districts. Back during the midterm campaign Clyburn spoke before my candidate as he was rushing off to South Carolina State University’s homecoming football game. Clyburn is big-time State alum and pork-wise has been extremely good to the school. As majority whip, Clyburn had an operation with at least 20 aides and an annual budget of more than $2 million. But that’s small potatoes compared to the $30-50 million in federal and state funds he’s brought in for transportation-related programs at the center that bears his name on the Orangeburg campus. Although S.C. State has been the largest recipient of Clyburn’s earmarks, he has also directed millions to other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the state. And his efforts aren’t just directed to black colleges. In fiscal year 2010 Clyburn sponsored or co-sponsored 42 earmarks totalling $55,874,000 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Money went to tech schools, a small, predominately white private school and the state medical school. But the importance of Clyburn’s and the other CBC members’ largess isn’t just measured in dollars – it’s also measured by the middle-class jobs connected to those dollars.
Even so, Obama’s actions are not those of a man who wants to help out the black community. He can pretend that he does, as when he says, “I propose cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.” But if he really cared deeply about them, he would have expanded them, not cut them.
Things don’t look so hopeful in black circles. And it’s not so much Obama’s fault. It could be the “schizophrenic” conflict of African American participation is U.S. politics.
The dilemma of black politics is whether it is about changing the system or running it? Is it about ending empire and elitism or running the empire and somehow becoming part of the elite? And what will people sacrifice for the latter?
Obama’s reelection message is a familiar and simple one: “Who else you going to vote for?” There seems to be no viable third party candidate on the horizon, as if that would matter to black voters. And we are constantly warned that if folks consider staying home, the consequence will be a Republican in the White House and more tea party candidates winning seats from the local to the national level. So Obama’s message boils down to, “Vote for me, it could be worse.”
Some die-hard Obama supporters maintain, “He’ll do better next term when he doesn’t have to worry about reelection.” But as the late Nancy Jefferson, “the mother of the West Side of Chicago,” who headed the Midwest Community Council, once said: “God will give you an illusion and send you to hell for believing it.”