Dear President Obama,
Congratulations on your election to a second term. You no doubt know how much we black people appreciate the historical significance
of both of your successful presidential campaigns. If you don’t, all you have to do is Google the numbers.
In 2008, according to several exit polls, you captured 95 to 98 percent of the black vote. On Tuesday, the estimates are between 94 and 96 percent.
We understand a broad coalition elected you president both terms, not just us. But we have had your back at a rate much higher than other slices of your coalition, and you know it.
Now, Mr. President, how about some payback?
This is not an unreasonable request. Just ask women, gays and immigrants.
For women, your first day in office you signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Later came your birth control mandate that guarantees women access to free contraceptives.
For gays, you announced on ABC your support for same-sex marriage.
For immigrants, you stopped deporting younger undocumented immigrants — most of them Latino — and began granting work permits for some of them.
Noticeably missing from the list is any demonstrable policy change — or change of mind — aimed squarely at the black members of your coalition. Some of your black supporters raised that issue even as they celebrated your victory on Election Night and the morning after.
“Now, he’s got to do something for us,” Reginald Miles, a professor at Howard University, said minutes after networks began declaring Obama’s win. “We should get our reward.”
Wednesday morning at a school bus stop in suburban Maryland, parents dropping off their children exchanged greetings and “relief,” as one woman put it, that you were reelected. “Let’s see what he’s going to do,” said the woman, who did not want to be named because she is a supervisor in a federal government agency. “He has no excuse not to do something for us.”
A friend who worked in the Clinton White House heard about this line of thinking and dismissed it. “Which one of those groups does not include black people?” she asked. “There are black women. There are black gays and black immigrants. And what about his health-care bill? Don’t blacks benefit from that?”
I understand her point, Mr. President, but she did not hear what I did from different people in different places in less than 12 hours after your victory: Something for us.
Many blacks who supported you in 2008 adopted a stay-quiet-and-wait posture. They wanted a second term for you. We understood that meant you had to camouflage your blackness.
A few blacks did challenge you, Mr. President, and urged you to reach out more to blacks and to the poor. You know, people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. But your unofficial wingmen, radio hosts Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, shot West and Smiley down with nasty verbal assaults.
It was safer to stay quiet and wait. In the meantime, you served up trinkets to your black supporters.
You granted interviews and allowed yourself to be videotaped playing basketball, that black game.
You said Cambridge, Mass. police acted “stupidly” when they arrested your buddy Henry Louis Gates in front of his own home and reminded the country of its ugly history of racial profiling by law enforcement.
You sympathized with anger generated by the slaying of the black Florida teen Trayvon Martin, saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
But no policy changes. Nothing for us.
Mr. President, many of us got the wait-until-a-second-term message earlier this year. In March, media reported you were “caught” on an open microphone telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to pass some words on to Vladimir Putin. “It’s important for him to give me space,” you said. “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
You could have been speaking to your black supporters, Mr. President. Now, you earned the second term, and the flexibility that comes with it.
Your legacy is secure. The first African American elected president of the United States. One of only three Democratic presidents to be elected to a second term in the past century. Now, sir, you can work on the third, fourth and fifth paragraphs of your story. Something for us.
“We need to decide what we want,” Miles said. “Make calls. Write letters. Send e-mails. And just like F.D.R. told A. Philip Randolph, we need to make Obama do it.”
Keith Harriston teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits Howard University News Service.
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