Like people of African descent worldwide, I watched with great anticipation the rise of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States. Glued to the television coverage, I watched as he walked out on stage with his family in front of the massive crowd on the evening of Election Day in November 2008, to say “thank you”, and to reaffirm the identifying slogan of his campaign: “Yes, we can.” Since then, it has been a struggle for Obama to maintain that sense of hope among the African-American community.
To say that there was a huge promise – indeed, a huge sense of hope – riding on Obama’s shoulders is perhaps an understatement. This weight was not limited to the African-American community alone but, for different reasons, the international community as well.
Let’s deal with the latter for a second. Including his early speeches, Obama wanted to make it clear that there would be a different spirit underlying the way the United States deals with countries which could be put in the bracket of “foes”: The clenched fist would be replaced by an outstretched hand. In many respects, many would agree that international tensions between other countries and the United States have largely been moderated.
Now, what did African-Americans want and what didn’t they get? For me this has been, and is, a puzzle. It almost seems as if they expected that all the problems they faced would have been resolved in one fell swoop. Racism would be a thing of the past. All African-Americans who were out of work would be given a job right away. Housing and the general sorry state of affairs that African-Americans faced overall would be eliminated. That, obviously, has not been the case and, in the real world, could never be. Politics and leadership in the western democracies do not work that way.
Certainly, one of the hopes for many activists was to see significant steps taken towards reparations for slavery. We will set aside that discussion for now. That, for Obama, was a non-starter. Whether he believes in reparations for slavery or not, it was not destined to be in his program of action, and said so.
As I would interpret it, Obama was convinced by his advisors early on to stay away from specific remedies directed at the African-American community. He, of course, is the President of all America and has to govern in that mode.
Realistically, had he ramped up domestic policies towards the African-American community, he would have certainly faced a backlash of enormous proportions. It certainly would do nothing to improve race relations in the United States.
So what is left to do? You work on bringing legislation, policies and programs into place that would benefit all Americans and, as such, help to equalize the realities of African-Americans in the process.
One would have thought that the struggle to change the healthcare system to make it equal would fall into that bracket. This would enable the majority of African-Americans who tend to fall in the low-income bracket, to be assured of better, affordable health care. That does not seem to be the resulting belief. Perhaps the recent Supreme Court decision may help.
The problems with the economy that Obama faced on taking office certainly forced him to alter much of his game plan. The banking crisis, the housing crisis, the downturn in employment, the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – all came into play to alter the strategic objectives that the new president would have liked to pursue.
From our vantage point, in Canada, it seems to me that a major flaw in the Obama presidency thus far has been a breakdown or lack of communication between the Obama Administration and African-Americans. While it is okay for the President to govern for all Americans, one gets the sense that he failed to keep an open line of communication between his administration and the African-American community.
While it is possible that he and his staff met with leaders in the African-American community, secretly or unofficially, the images of him doing so are missing.
During the course of his administration, President Obama has very rarely – indeed only when pressed to do so – addressed the issue of race in America. This seems to be a major issue, and perhaps so it should be.
The issue of race in America has placed African-Americans at a tremendous disadvantage. The fact that the first Black president has failed to make it an issue of concern seems to be the major stumbling block affecting Obama’s support in this most important segment of his base. Yes, he is not a Black president, but a president who happens to be Black. That message can only take you so far. The repeat of another Black president after Obama is not in the immediate future. It is important to take advantage of this opportunity.
The question now is: Will African-Americans withhold their support for Obama this time around?
I am one of those people who believe that Obama is holding back for a second term to act more openly and forcefully in support of the African-American community. In essence, he would be unfettered by not having to seek re-election. Does the African-American community know this?
If that is indeed Obama’s plan, then that lack of communication between him and the community represents a significant obstacle to re-attracting and mobilizing the Black vote.
By PATRICK HUNTER