Over the last three and a half years, there have been three silly political storylines that have driven me absolutely nuts because it was plainly apparent that they were not true. One was that author, reality television star and former half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin was going to run for president in 2012. Another was that President Obama would swap out Vice President Biden in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And the most irksome of all is the complaint from African Americans that Obama ignores their concerns.
The latest manifestation of the Obama-doesn’t-care-about-black-people whine comes from Fredrick Harris. In a piece for The Post’s Outlook section headlined “Still waiting for our first black president,” which was adapted from his new book, the Columbia University professor makes a stunningly false argument.
Obama has pursued a racially defused electoral and governing strategy, keeping issues of specific interest to African Americans — such as disparities in the criminal justice system; the disproportionate impact of the foreclosure crisis on communities of color; black unemployment; and the persistence of HIV/AIDS — off the national agenda. Far from giving black America greater influence in U.S. politics, Obama’s ascent to the White House has signaled the decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on.
Those are all important issues. They must be addressed. The problem for Harris is that they are being addressed by the president. Not in the theatrical way Harris would like. But in the actions-speak-louder-than-words way of Obama.
Criminal justice disparities
In August 2010, the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act. This long-sought legislation reduced the glaring disparity in punishment for those charged with crack offenses and those with powder cocaine offenses. “For the past three decades, those arrested for crack offenses — mostly young, African American men — faced far harsher penalties than the white and Hispanic suspects most often caught with powder cocaine,” The Post editorial pointed out then. “A person found holding 500 grams of powder cocaine would face a five-year mandatory minimum; crack offenders would have to be in possession of a mere 5 grams to face the same obligatory sentence.”
That brings the glaring disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. And it is perhaps the clearest example of injecting more fairness into the criminal justice system, particularly for African Americans. That Harris didn’t even acknowledge this is surprising and shortsighted.
The foreclosure crisis
Just last Thursday (May 31), SunTrust Mortgage Inc. and the Justice Department announced a $21 million agreement to settle a lawsuit brought by DOJ. Between 2005 and 2009, the suit alleged, the mortgage lender “engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination that increased loan prices for many of the qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers who obtained loans.” According to DOJ, SunTrust’s discriminatory policy affected more than 20,000 black and Latino borrowers who were hit with higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers, “not based on borrowers risk, but because of their race or national origin.”
Last week’s announcement came five months after DOJ announced a record $335 million settlement with Countrywide Financial Corp. The department alleged that “Countrywide discriminated by charging more than 200,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers in both its retail and wholesale lending.” In addition, “Countrywide discriminated by steering thousands of African-American and Hispanic borrowers into subprime mortgages when non-Hispanic white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans. All the borrowers who were discriminated against were qualified for Countrywide mortgage loans according to Countrywide’s own underwriting criteria.”
And let’s not forget Obama’s risky move to recess appoint Richard Cordray as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Overseeing mortgage companies is one of CFPB’s primary functions. Considering African Americans have been hit hardest by the discriminatory practices of mortgage companies, this should have been cheered by Harris as a win for black homeowners and their families.
This is the one area where Harris has a point. But only up to a point. As we are painfully aware, when the national economy catches a cold, African Americans get knocked out with pneumonia. An untenable situation that won’t improve with unemployment ticking up to 8.2 percent for May and fears of a global economic slowdown, weighing heavily on the markets.
Here’s something else we should be painfully aware of. Whether Democrat or Republican, the president of the United States has no control over the economy. The best he can do on the downward slope of the economic cycle is hold on tight and pray he isn’t thrown out. Still, presidents can do their best to help encourage business put people to work. And that’s what Obama has been trying to do (belatedly) with the American Jobs Act and “to-do” list.
But Congress has been aggressive in its unwillingness to move on either initiative. In our representative democracy, Obama cannot act unless Congress sends him legislation to sign. So, while Harris is right to focus rhetorical fire at the Oval Office, he would do well to aim his ire at Republican congressional leaders who are more concerned about denying “a win” to Obama than giving one to the American people.
The persistence of HIV/AIDS
Harris argues that Obama has not paid enough attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging the black community. To argue this point is to completely ignore The National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States released two years ago next month. And it means completely ignoring the incredible policy shift that continues to guide this effort.
Not every person or group has an equal chance of becoming infected with HIV. Yet, for many years, too much of our nation’s response has been conducted as though everyone is equally at risk for HIV infection. Stopping HIV transmission requires that we focus more intently on the groups and communities where the most cases of new infections are occurring.
As the national strategy shows, African Americans and particularly black men who have sex with men (MSM) are bearing the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to charts on page 10 of the report, while those men are second to white MSM in the numbers of annual HIV infections (10,130 compared to 13,230), the risk for infection among black MSM is off the charts. For them, there were 1,710 infections per 100,000 compared to 344 infections per 100,000 for white MSM. It should be noted that heterosexual black women are a lot better off in this calculation. There were 47 infections per 100,000.
Since July 2010, the Office of National AIDS Policy has been implementing the strategy and must report its progress directly to the president every year. You probably didn’t even know such an office existed or that such work was happening. But that gets to my larger issue with Harris and others who think Obama isn’t doing anything to specifically help African Americans. Not every policy change or program requires or gets the attention it deserves.
By searching for marquis moments, Harris and others appear not to care about the myriad actions Obama has undertaken that affect the lives of all Americans, yes, but also of African Americans more directly. And I certainly don’t advocate for Obama to burst into the East Room clad in Kente cloth and brandishing a definable “black agenda”or whatever else so many blacks seem to want from him to prove that he cares.
Someone who started his career on the south side of Chicago, whose wife is also from Chicago and who also has two young black daughters, doesn’t wake up one day and say, I don’t care about African Americans. That’s why it bothers me to no end that those who are “still waiting for our first black president” seem unwilling to pay attention to what the first black president is actually doing.