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Black Americans must step up to challenge racial inequities

By Sophia A. Nelson
Saturday, March 20, 2010; A15

All of this talk about a post-racial America where black people are seemingly thriving, partying at the White House with Jay-Z, and enjoying unprecedented access and opportunity is really starting to irk me because it is simply not the reality of most black Americans. In fact, a quiet storm has been brewing among African American leaders for months over the devastating effects that U.S. economic woes are having on blacks across the nation.

The issue came to a head recently when Tavis Smiley, appearing on the morning show of syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, openly questioned black leaders such as NAACP President Ben Jealous, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Council of Negro Women's Dorothy Height about their unwillingness to hold President Obama accountable for these disparities and demanded that Obama develop an agenda targeted to address black inequalities. Impassioned by the debate, Smiley is hosting a national forum today in Chicago titled, "We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda."

But some are asking the wrong question. The issue is not whether the president should be focused on a "black agenda" vs. an "American agenda," or whether Obama has a "special obligation" to highlight black issues in ways that his predecessors might not have. The real question is: Do we still live in a nation that is largely divided by race and class? A spate of reports and news articles strongly suggests we do, highlighting the facts that blacks have been disproportionately and devastatingly affected by the recession, foreclosure crisis and loss of wealth in the U.S. economy since 2007.

A variety of census figures, think tank reports and studies show that blacks are bearing the brunt of the recession, with disproportionately high levels of foreclosures and unemployment. A 2009 New York Times op-ed, "The Recession's Racial Divide" by Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad, began by asking: "What do you get when you combine the worst economic downturn since the Depression with the first black president? A surge of white racial resentment, loosely disguised as a populist revolt." The point of this column and other assessments is that race continues to be a dividing line in our country when it comes to the economy, who is doing well and who is not.

Surely we can all agree that Wall Street's experiment with subprime mortgages led to the global financial crash of 2007, resulting in reduced home values and emptied 401(k) accounts across the racial and income divide. But while all of us suffered, how well known is it that before the crash even high-income blacks (myself included) were almost twice as likely to end up with subprime home-purchase loans as were low-income whites -- even when they had good credit and qualified for prime mortgages? As a result of being steered toward such products, blacks lost $71 billion to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans. That's a catastrophe in terms of families' net worth. A 2008 study suggested that the typical African American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family. Only 18 percent of blacks and Latinos had retirement accounts, compared with 43.4 percent of whites.

Obama has maintained that blacks will in fact benefit most from Congress passing jobs legislation and health-care reform. But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told MSNBC on Wednesday that "the problem in the African American community is that I don't think it will be helped a lot by" the recently passed $18 billion jobs bill. The aforementioned statistics support Cummings's point of view.

If this is true, black leaders need to do more than carp at the president. We need to address the problem ourselves. A good first step is to hold congressional leaders accountable by putting into legislation the tenets of the "Covenant with Black America," a document (turned best-selling book) formed by Smiley and others during the Bush presidency. The "covenant" proposed a "black agenda" and pledged to hold the winner of the 2008 presidential campaign accountable to its principles. So why now do those same black leaders find it unconscionable for black people to question a black president or hold him accountable?

It is a threat to our democratic republic for citizens of any race, color or creed not to feel that they can openly criticize, challenge or lobby the president to focus on issues critical to their interest. Gay people do it. Latinos do it. Why can't black folks do it? That is how Washington works.

Race remains America's deepest and most enduring dividing line. That is not something the president alone, not even a black one, can fix. This is a challenge that black Americans must address within our communities, and it is one that President Obama must be bold enough to take up as a unique challenge of his administration.

The writer is a contributor to TheRoot.com and the author of the book "Black. Female. Accomplished. Redefined," which is forthcoming from Smiley Books.

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