Black America still celebrates Obama, if not his policies

Courtland Milloy
Columnist August 2, 2011

Remember the last Democratic presidential campaign, when black support suddenly shifted in December 2007 from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama? We still liked Hillary, perhaps even more than the little-known Barack, but the possibility of electing the first black president in American history . . . well, what a symbol that would be.

And how we wept for joy when he won.

Now look at the tears. Black America is crying the blues like no time since the Great Depression. Black households, on average, have lost more than half their worth in just a few short years, and the wealth gap between blacks and whites is at a historic high.

A study by labor researchers at Berkeley, released last month, noted that “as governments continue to trim budgets, the mass layoffs of public employees have disproportionately impacted the African-American community.”

A double whammy for places such as Prince George’s County, home to many black federal employees. First the housing bubble bursts and any chance of accumulating wealth vanishes. Now comes the prospect of losing their jobs to a deficit reduction plan that ostensibly is suppose to lead to job creation. Bah humbug.

Prince George’s also leads the Washington area in charitable giving. As residents’ pocketbooks shrink, the safety net for the black poor they tend to donate to will surely become all the more tattered.

Ironic, isn’t it, that our most profound political achievement coincides with our greatest economic loss since slavery?

And yet we do not want our symbol of black success tarnished by this disappointment. We do not want to see Obama fail. Even when our homes are underwater and we’re drowning in red ink, Obama can take for granted that he’ll always have our shoulders to stand on.

After signing the deficit-reduction bill Tuesday, the president gave us another visionary speech of things to come that somehow never do. Now it’s time to focus on jobs, he said. For the umpteenth time. It seems that every time Obama loses a political fight, usually after appearing to throw in the towel, he tries to make it sound like he gave in now so he could get something for us later.

And we believe it. Just wait till he gets reelected, we tell ourselves. Which, of course, will be too late.

Nevertheless, we love us some Obama. Whenever Obama strolls into a public place, say, Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in the District, we part for him like the Red Sea, hands reach out as if he were handing out fishes and loaves or, in this case, half-smokes on a bun.

Black churches are filled to the rafters whenever he, the first lady and their two daughters show up. Obama flashes a smile so bright it makes Denzel Washington’s 100 watts look dull by comparison. And grown men turn to groupies.

On Saturday, Princeton professor Cornel West and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley are scheduled to launch a 15-city “poverty tour.” The purpose, supposedly, is to spotlight the neglected needs of the poor. But I suspect the real intent is to answer a question that West asks time and again: “What’s up with dear Brother Barack?”

The question might be appropriate, but the tone and timing are off. Lucky for them that black people don’t have a penchant for pie throwing.

Sure, black support for Obama is down to 54 percent. But that’s the same as it was in December 2007 — just one month before his popularity among blacks soared to 70 percent and culminated with 96 percent of the black vote in the presidential election.

And that happened even though four out of five blacks said they had a favorable impression of Hillary Clinton. Something tells me Obama is not worried about losing the black vote to, say, the likes of Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.

But we do worry about dear Brother Barack. Surely he must realize that the New Deal and Great Society are being undone on his watch — and that many black people are facing an economic struggle reminiscent of the post-Reconstruction era.

Comparisons to the Great Depression aren’t just economic, either.

In 1937, blues singer Robert Johnson agonized over making a deal with the devil in “Hellhound on My Trail.” Now comes Obama, similarly dogged by GOP hell-raisers, signing off on a deficit-reduction deal that Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) called a “satan sandwich.”

Swallow hard, Black America.

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