While President Obama has been a unifying force in the black community during his first term in office, his presidency has also fueled deep divisions among many African Americans. The president’s first-term policies sparked heated debates among a host of well-known black intellectuals and political observers who argue that the president has ignored the issues of his most loyal base.
These tensions will likely remain throughout Obama’s second term unless he quickly reverses course.
But what should this “payback” look like? Unlike other interest groups, such as gays and Hispanics, who responded positively to symbolic gestures from the president, African Americans appear as if they cannot come to an agreement on what a priority list should be. The community seems to lack a unifying issue that Obama could address. And we seem to also lack a clear strategy for implementing what those community-friendly policies might be.
But that doesn’t negate the president’s responsibility to address the concerns of black Americans and respond to their call for social policy that addresses their greatest needs. Indeed, there are a mix of specific issues that might delicately satisfy his most loyal followers. These direct policies could address the disproportionate loss of wealth among black families; a reinvigorated, targeted civil rights agenda; a more holistic approach to family cohesion; and a commitment to Africans around the globe.
Any agenda that’s void of a sustainable strategy for economic advancement will do African Americans little good. But a universal plan seeking to help the poor and middle class stay afloat will fall short of meeting the black community’s specific needs.
Our fiscal woes must be looked at in relation to this country’s long history of social inequality. Proposed policies from the president should factor in centuries of a lack of access to quality education, housing and health care.
While America has made it clear that reparations are not up for debate, that doesn’t mean that other equalizers cannot be put into place. This may come in the form of tax breaks for minority small-business owners, federally funded financial aid for higher education, debt forgiveness programs or greater housing protection. Collectively, these incentives would serve as an unofficial “stimulus package” for disenfranchised African American communities.
The passing of the Affordable Care Act was a landmark moment in this nation’s political history, but how do we ensure cutting-edge policies are always coming down the pipeline? African Americans face a unique set of social challenges, and it would be comforting to know that Obama and his Cabinet are committed to identifying and addressing those needs.
Unfortunately, so much of our country’s understanding of civil rights is limited to issues that were cause for grass-roots mobilization in the 1960s and 1970s — such as the right to vote. With social advancement in various arenas came the belief that discriminatory practices are a thing of the past. As a result, we perpetually ignore patterns of injustice and treat them as rare occurrences.
The president, with the help of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., is in a unique position to institute a greater civil rights checks and balances system. This could happen within the civil rights division of the Justice Department or through the establishment of a national civil rights commission (similar to the United Nations Human Rights Council).
It would have as its mission monitoring and putting an end to repeated civil rights violations that occur within the United States, focusing on state legislation, law enforcement agencies and the courts themselves.
The ultimate goal would be to address the alarming incidents of police brutality, disproportionate incarceration rates, number of death penalty rulings and unfair sentencing laws related to black men and women. The appointment of judges and selection of jurors would also have to be better regulated.
The Obama administration released a report this past summer on its fatherhood initiative, which is described as an interagency effort “to encourage fathers to take responsibility for the intellectual, emotional and financial well-being of their children.”
Citing data that found “roughly one out of every three Hispanic children and more than half of African-American children grow up in homes without their fathers present,” this initiative is one major commitment that the administration has made to improving quality of life for black Americans.
The problem is that it is too one-sided in its approach.
The community would also stand to benefit from a similar initiative that has as its goal supporting single mothers and their fatherless children. A welfare-centered approach doesn’t cut it. How are single mothers being equipped to tend to the “intellectual, emotional and financial well-being of their children”?
Considering the broad ethnic diversity of black Americans, a black agenda should be Pan-African in its approach. The nation’s near neglect of meaningful African and West Indian foreign policy is disrespectful to the millions of American citizens who have immigrated from those regions or still have family members there. If Israeli and Palestinian relations are prioritized because of Jewish Americans, and the welfare of Cubans and Mexicans because of Latin Americans, then greater African diplomacy should be equally important.
This would aid in improving the image that groups of African immigrants have of the United States as an “iron fist” superpower that’s unsympathetic to the needs of their homeland. Who better than Obama, who is of Kenyan descent, to engage the needs of black Americans in light of the African diaspora as a whole?
Grass-roots mobilization in decades past had the benefit of clearly defined agendas that a wide range of people could agree on. Today, it's increasingly harder to find masses of people who are all fighting for the same things. Yet, we all can ensure that we are informed about issues in our local community, as well as nationally. We can be fiscally literate as it relates to our personal finances as well as the economic standing of our nation. We can identify the candidates that are an extension of our core values, strategically support them and hold them accountable once in office.
We can all learn and do more in the next four years and beyond — for the sake of our country. But the one thing that we can't do is expect one politician to carry the weight of black America on his back all alone. We have some heavy lifting to do alongside the president.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.
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