Obama can’t win with some black critics

President Obama speaking at Morehouse College commencement (Curtis Compton/Pool/EPA)
President Obama speaking at Morehouse College commencement (Curtis Compton/Pool/EPA)

Here we go again. President Obama’s critics in the African American community are hammering him for doing nothing for black people. Drawing my attention this time is “How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic and “A President for Everyone, except Black People” by the Rev. Kevin Johnson that appeared last month in the Philadelphia Tribune. While I understand where they are coming from, this thinking drives me crazy because the president’s detractors fail to take a 360-degree view of what they are demanding from him and ignore what he’s actually done.

Obama inspires deeply conflicted emotions in the African American community. We are beyond thrilled to have “one of us” in the White House. To see that man and his family represent us (all Americans, in this case) on the world stage never fails to stoke our pride. Yet, that pride is tempered by a simmering discontent. Many accuse Obama not only of ignoring the concerns of black people, but also of talking down to them. Let me take issue with the latter first.

Coates’s criticism emanates from Obama’s commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta. On many levels, the speech to the all-male historically black college last Sunday was your typical speech filled with advice to graduates. But, unlike most speeches of this type, his was not delivered from on-high. No, in tone and words, Obama spoke to the black men of Morehouse not as a distant president but as a familiar peer. He used his troubled past as a real-life example of how one’s limited circumstances are neither destiny nor a hindrance to achieving the American Dream, as they define it. He urged the graduates to not make excuses, to aim high and to give back. Yet, Coates calls this “‘convenient race-talk’ from a president who ought to know better.” Obama can’t win.

As for the “what have you done for me lately” school of black criticism, Obama can’t win there, either.

“I supported then-Senator Obama not because he was Black, but because I truly believed in my heart that he was the best candidate to empathize, understand, and develop policies to help the African-American community, the poor, and previously under-represented communities,”  Johnson wrote. “To my disappointment, the president has not only failed the Black community, but also has failed to surround himself with qualified African-Americans who could develop policies to help the most disenfranchised.”

Coates makes the strongest and most compelling argument of those I’ve read taking the Obama administration to task for its policy failings. Still, he and Johnson are incredibly short-sighted. Nearly a year ago, I urged African Americans to “stop waiting for and start paying attention to our first black president” in reaction to a book by Columbia University professor Fredrick C. Harris. It’s a plea that bears repeating.

By searching for [marquee] moments, Harris and others appear not to care about the myriad actions Obama has undertaken that affect the lives of all Americans, yes, but also of African Americans more directly. And I certainly don’t advocate for Obama to burst into the East Room clad in Kente cloth and brandishing a definable “black agenda”or whatever else so many blacks seem to want from him to prove that he cares.

Johnson and others seem unaware of what the Obama administration has actually done. They discount the increases in education funding, particularly for historically black colleges and universities. They completely ignore the nearly 7 million African Americans who will get health care thanks to Obamacare. They seem to brush off the Fair Sentencing Act the president signed in 2010 that reduced the glaring disparity in punishment for those charged with crack offenses and those with powder cocaine offenses. They seem to overlook the enforcement actions the administration has taken against the discriminatory practices of banks and mortgage lenders who preyed on the black community with higher fees and interest rates.

This was all in the first term through a proper and politically necessary rising-tide-lifts-all-boats agenda. After the 2010 midterm elections, when the House swung back to GOP control, the president’s ability to get anything done with Congress was greatly diminished. Accomplishments of late have involved high-stakes drama over a “cliff”or a “ceiling.”

That’s what’s missing from most African American critiques of Obama: an appreciation for Republican resistance to his agenda. To expect the president to introduce an explicit and definable “black agenda” in a Congress filled with people who believe him to be a socialist destroying the country while illegitimately occupying the Oval Office is seriously naive.

Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.
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