Posted on July 21, 2009

For Blacks, a Hidden Cost of Obama’s Win?

Alexandra Marks, ABC News, July 19, 2009


At the same time, a growing number of African-American scholars are questioning the cost of that victory.

These scholars recognize that Obama still enjoys extraordinarily high approval ratings among African-Americans. An April New York Times poll found the percentage of African-Americans with an unfavorable opinion of him was too small to measure. {snip}

But there is some concern that in Obama’s efforts to transcend race and unite the country, the African-American community could inadvertently lose political clout in determining crucial social-policy issues–from education to healthcare–vital to its well-being.

“What was the price of Obama’s election? In part, it was that we can no longer talk about race explicitly around national policy issues, or at least [Obama] can’t, without being accused of playing identity politics,” says Eddie Glaude, professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. “So the question is then: How do African-American communities engage issues in light of their particular experiences without being accused of pushing a racial agenda?”

An Awkward Dance

To date, it has been an awkward dance. Some African-Americans have faced a backlash for criticizing Obama. In April 2008, Tavis Smiley, a leading black commentator, abruptly left a popular morning show on Black Entertainment Television after he criticized candidate Obama. At the time, host Tom Joyner told listeners that Mr. Smiley couldn’t take “the hate” coming from listeners. Smiley, who did not return requests for a comment, later cited fatigue as a reason.

Prominent African-American scholar Cornel West was asked recently if he’d take a post in the Obama White House. His reply: “You find me in a crack house before you find me in the White House.”

On The Huffington Post, comedian Elon James White called Dr. West’s comment “sheer lunacy.” He added, “Dr. West is part of a group of Black intelligentsia that see it as their job to step up and police President Obama on his dealings on Blackness.” West was in Europe and unavailable for comment.

Michael Eric Dyson, another leading black intellectual, has also come under fire for suggesting on radio that Obama was “playing” black people. Dr. Dyson did not respond to requests for a comment.

At the same time, other leading African-Americans have been chastised for being overly uncritical. Professor Glaude says the community is experiencing a confusion typical of any political movement in the midst of a historic transformation.


Today, Obama is regularly asked what he’ll do about the black community’s disproportionately high unemployment or inequities in education and healthcare. His response steers clear of racial references and focuses on the need to fix the economy. “[If] I don’t do that, then I’m not going to be able to help anybody,” he said at a June press conference.

Such answers frustrate some African-Americans, who would like a more direct response. Achieving racial equity, they say, demands significant change–more than Obama has yet enacted and more than is produced by the symbolism of a black man at the White House.

“We ought not to be blinded by the fact that he looks like some of us,” says Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report. “We can’t invest so much in the symbolism that we don’t really pay attention to what ‘brother man’ actually says and does.”


Signs of a Different Approach

But others say that Obama has already made racial issues, like civil rights enforcement, a top priority. He has increased by 18 percent the budget for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and reversed the conservative stamp on the division, which under President Bush brought only two cases of voter discrimination on behalf of African-Americans.

The Obama administration has also made its presence felt at the US Supreme Court. It supported the City of New Haven against white firefighters, whose reverse-discrimination case was recently decided by the high court in the firefighters’ favor. It also opposed the challenge to the Voting Rights Act by a Texas entity. In that case, the court voted to keep the 1965 act intact.