The African American media round table hosted by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee of the U.S. Senate yesterday was the perfect opportunity to ask the gathered senators (11 in total) to validate or knock down something I have been saying for a while now. If President Obama sent Congress a definable “black agenda,” I asked, “how dead-on-arrival would such a piece of legislation be?”
There were murmurs and a bit of nervous laughter, But Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) stepped up with the short answer. “It would not be dead on arrival in the Senate” she said. “It would be dead-on-arrival in the House.” She means the Republican-controlled House that has so lost touch with the concept of governing that it can’t get anything done.
But Sen. William “Mo” Cowan (Mass.), one of only two blacks in the Senate — the other is Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — gave the long answer. One I wish the president’s critics would listen to if not appreciate.
“What is a definable black agenda? I mean the president wasn’t elected to be president of black America. He’s the president of all Americans,” Cowan responded. “Frankly, there are some significant issues in black America, the black community, that are issues that are endemic in other parts of the nation. I think with respect to those who raise that issue, I think it’s short-sighted to say these are challenges unique to black America.” He added, “The issues that black Americans are concerned about frankly are the same issues I hear about when I talk to my white constituents. It’s the same challenges. There may be differing degrees, but I think if you’re going to govern you have to govern for everybody.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) agreed, spelling out some specifics. “An inherently African American, black agenda, is inherently an agenda that lifts low-income people into the middle class. That’s what the agenda ought to be,” he said. “The president ought to have an agenda that focuses on educational disparities, that focuses on housing disparities, focuses on wage-gap disparities, like raising the minimum wage significantly, especially for tip workers which hasn’t been for, what, 25 years, I think. [An agenda] which focuses on job creation for people that have lost their jobs in the old economy and need [a] new one. For me, that’s the kind of agenda the president ought to be focused on. It’s an agenda that speaks to the people that have really been left out.”
Later in the conversation, Suzanne Gamboa of the Associated Press came back to this issue. Considering in the not-so-distant future the United States will be a majority minority nation, she asked, “Aren’t you taking an economic risk as senators by not, ignoring whether or not Barack Obama wants a black agenda, taking it up yourself and pressing for a black agenda?” The senators largely sidestepped a direct answer to Gamboa’s question, but it elicited a response from Cowan that I wish would stop being ignored by some of Obama’s black critics. Cowan said:
“There have been some huge pieces of legislation that could potentially have huge positive impacts on African Americans, black America. If you look at the Affordable Care Act dealing with access to health care, affordability in health care and health disparities, that is a significant piece of legislation. When it’s implemented and when it’s working effectively and up-and-running, it’s going to positively improve the lives of black America writ large. I think once we come to grips with our budgetary situation and deal with those realities and get out of the sequester nonsense will go a long way towards not just improving the lives of black Americans but all Americans.
“And let me be clear about this as a black American. You know, the black American agenda, as I see it, is the American agenda. We are a huge part of this nation. We are not separate, but equal. We are very much a part of this, and I have faith and confidence in the president and this administration is focused on the things that matters most to black America even if they’re not couched in that phraseology.”
It’s that level of political nuance that is missing from most of Obama’s African American detractors.
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