I hope President Obama appreciates the grand bargain he’s getting from African Americans: unwavering support, stratospheric approval rating, muted exasperation when he disappoints, vociferous defense when he’s under attack.
But what do black people get in return?
A recent spate of polls suggests that Obama himself is the payoff — that he need not do much more than be the first black president, the most powerful symbol of racial progress in American history.
Keep his nose clean and pants up and don’t speak ebonics at a press conference — and in the minds of most African Americans, Obama’s legacy as the greatest president of all time is assured.
“Our poll showed that there is great pride in having Obama as the leader of the free world,” said Robert L. Johnson, a black billionaire businessman who commissioned Zogby to survey African American attitudes in March. “But that pride is part of a Faustian bargain we made. We will not push Obama to pull us up if we think that doing so might bring him down.”
On Monday, during a speech about mental health at the White House, Obama noted that untreated mental illness could lead to “tragedy on a larger scale.” He was referring to last year’s massacre in Newtown, Conn. “We can do something about stories like this,” he said.
But he did not address mental illness and violence in the black community, which is a far more pervasive problem. Are black kids who kill each other off one at a time less of a concern than the lone white man who goes on a rampage?
Apparently the pact with Obama includes avoiding any mention of race.
A Quinnipiac poll last month suggests that Obama can do no wrong as far as most black people are concerned. Some of this is a reflexive defense of a black man who appears under siege by right-wing opposition that, in an earlier time, would be wearing hoods and a sheet.
But even that is no reason to back everything that Obama does. Despite the high unemployment, 70 percent of blacks “approve” of the way Obama is handling the economy, compared with 35 percent of whites, according to Quinnipiac.
Although Obama bungled a gun-control bill that would not have done a thing about gun violence — especially in urban areas — 67 percent of blacks approved of the way he handled it, compared with 36 percent of whites.
Black respondents to a poll by NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released Tuesday, sounded as if Obama had finally let the good times roll. More than half said their lives have gotten better in the years since Obama took office, and a whopping 83 percent are satisfied or very satisfied with their lives overall.
And yet, Black America just took an economic beating of historic proportions — in many instances swindled out of two generations of wealth by fraudulent mortgage lenders. Nearly 40 percent of black children live in poverty; nearly 50 percent of young black men in some of country’s largest urban areas are unemployed; the incarceration rate for black men is so high that it amounts to a state-sponsored crime.
The NPR poll even found that more than half of black people are concerned about losing their jobs in the next 12 months.
What’s to be satisfied about?
Gays didn’t pretend to be happy. Neither did white women or Hispanics. They pressured Obama into addressing their concerns.
“Other identity groups are looking strong because their membership is more easily mobilized,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “Our civil rights organizations are not nearly as strong as they used to be. They need to be rebuilt and grown to the point that meaningful political pressure can be applied.”
Said Johnson, “Many black people feel that it would be a betrayal if we tried to push Obama to do more than the system would allow him to do.”
But how does anybody know what the system will allow unless it is tested?
“I don’t think there will be a major effort to call Obama out for black unemployment, income disparities or issues such as glass ceilings for African Americans in corporate America,” Johnson said. “As the first black president, he gets a pass from us.”
What a deal.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.