Friday, March 19, 2010

Some African-Americans Say Obama Failing To Help Black Community

Some African-Americans Say Obama Failing To Help Black Community
Obama’s Approval Ratings High Among Blacks, But Some Activists Say President Could Be Doing Much More

By Dahleen Glanton and Katherine Skiba, Tribune reporters

7:57 PM CDT
March 17, 2010

After turning out in record numbers to help elect the first black president, some African-Americans have begun to criticize President Barack Obama for failing to develop economic and social policies targeting the black community, which has suffered disproportionately from the recession.

The debate over whether the president should address a "black agenda" has deeply divided African-Americans and created a rift between some civil rights activists who prefer to work behind the scenes with the president and prominent leaders who have chosen to voice their concerns publicly.

Much of the discussion in recent weeks has centered on a symposium scheduled Saturday at Chicago State University, sponsored by radio and television personality Tavis Smiley, a critic of Obama's policies, to bring attention to issues he and others said have been ignored by the president. The South Side event will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and is expected to draw 7,000 to 10,000 people.

African-Americans have consistently given Obama record-high approval ratings, though they dropped from a high of 96 percent in August to 89 percent last week, according to Gallup polls. Still, some blacks have expressed growing concerns that the president has ignored their plight, and they are airing their gripes on black radio talk shows.

Questions over whether Obama should be held accountable for the staggering unemployment rate, home foreclosures and economic and education disparities among African-Americans have created a dilemma for some black leaders who are reluctant to challenge a president they respect and admire. But giving Obama a pass, critics argue, sets a dangerous precedent for dealing with future presidents.

"How are we going to do this dance with black leaders and the president when everybody is walking on eggshells because they are scared to hurt the president's feelings?" Smiley said. "Great presidents are not born, they have to be made. They have to be pushed."

Obama has consistently stated that every step taken to improve the economy is designed to help all people and that "if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats." In an interview in December with American Urban Radio Networks, a group of black-owned stations, Obama said he "can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm the president of the United States."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Black Action Network, has gone head-to-head with Smiley over the issue, arguing that it is unfair to make demands on Obama that have not been made on other presidents.

"We all agree on the need for a black agenda, but the question is how do we go about getting it? I agree with getting it done by working with the president. I don't think a forum is going to accomplish anything," said Sharpton, who met with the president last month along with the heads of the National Urban League and the NAACP.

"There is a difference in being on the outside and having access and being insiders. We are not insiders, but we are outsiders with access. The others are just grumbling," he said.

In addition to sitting down with black leaders, Obama has met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whom have urged him to create programs tailored to the needs of African-Americans.

Critics reject Obama's stance that helping all Americans helps those who are suffering most, particularly as blacks are experiencing 15.8 percent unemployment, nearly twice the 8.8 percent rate for whites.

A recent report by the nonpartisan Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University found that the administration's $787 billion stimulus package has done little to correct extreme racial disparities in unemployment, layoffs, social service and education budget cuts, foreclosures and bankruptcies among blacks and other economically depressed groups.

"(Obama) doesn't want to be ghettoized. He doesn't want to be seen as ‘the president of black people,'" said Michael Eric Dyson, an author and sociology professor at Georgetown University who endorsed Obama early on but now criticizes him for not doing more to help blacks. "He doesn't want to tarnish his achievement as a race-transcending figure."

Democratic Rep. Danny Davis, of Chicago, who was among those who met with the president at the White House last week, said he supports Obama 99 percent and that the attitude of his constituents is, "Right on, Barack Obama."

Davis said Obama has done an "outstanding" job, especially given the problems he inherited, from two wars to a financial system "on the verge of collapse." Davis said he was encouraged by Obama's support at the meeting for resources for historically black colleges and predominantly black institutions and for a new summer jobs program for young people.

Defending its record, the Obama administration notes that its most recent budget blueprint identified 19 ways the administration would "give African-American families the tools they need to succeed." The items singled out include job training, revitalizing distressed neighborhoods, fighting gang violence and $20 million for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

But according to Cliff Kelley, commentator of a black-oriented talk show on WVON radio, blacks are becoming increasingly frustrated that the president has not done more.

"People are feeling frustrated when they see reports that 1.7 percent of the stimulus money going to Hispanic (businesses) and 1.1 percent to black (businesses)," Kelley said. "They are totally (angry) about foreclosures, but they want to support him. They don't see a choice in not supporting him."

Oscar Young, 62, an insurance broker from the Chatham neighborhood, said he would like to see more aid to African-American communities, but he understands why the president can't do it immediately.

"He wants to do it, but if he leaned in all the way to help, he would have problems even with the liberals who say they are on our side," Young said. "When he is re-elected, he is going to reach out more to African-Americans. We just have to be patient."

Ron Walters, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, said African-Americans have mastered the art of voting but have not figured out how to transfer that power into lifting the economic status of the community.

"It is clear we haven't gotten out of the political system the things we need, so everyone has to be held accountable," Walters said. "This is a legitimate debate over the role of the president. It has to be. If it weren't, you would have to go back to everyone who has served as president, beginning with Abraham Lincoln, and say it's OK if you don't recognize a population that endures disproportionate suffering."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was not invited to the White House with other civil rights leaders but plans to participate in Saturday's symposium, said blacks must make demands just as the banks did for the bailout, as Latinos have for immigration reform and gays have for repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

"The only way to get change is to make public your pain," Jackson said. "Rising tides may lift all boats, but we are looking at a tidal wave."

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

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