A new round of attacks from Barack Obama’s defenders is aimed at anyone who expresses criticism of the administration’s record after two and a half years.
AS GEORGIA death row prisoner Troy Davis approached execution on September 21, a growing chorus of voices began to wonder aloud whether the nation’s first Black president would intervene to stop a legal lynching.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She is a frequent contributor on the subject of race and class and has written extensively on the struggle for housing justice. Her articles have also appeared on the Black Commentator, CounterPunch and Gaper’s Block Web sites.
Davis had already been strapped to the gurney in Georgia’s death chamber–and the Supreme Court had begun its hours-long haggling over his appeal for a stay of execution–when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement explaining that it was “inappropriate” for the president to say anything at all about the case because this was a state execution.
It was a sobering display of cowardice. We’re supposed to believe that the most powerful political office in the most powerful nation in the world–one that led a war on Libya, that illegally bombs Pakistan with unmanned drones, and that is responsible for assaults in Afghanistan that slaughter wedding parties and unarmed children–was powerless to intervene to stop the murder of an innocent man in Georgia.
Then again, in those rare moments when Barack Obama addresses Black America these days, he always manages to find his tough side. Whether it’s blaming Black fathers for not being men or blaming Black mothers for feeding their children fried chicken for breakfast, Obama never misses an opportunity to blame Black America for the state of Black America.
This past weekend was no different. In an embarrassing show of arrogance, Obama launched into an attack on his Black critics–three days after Davis’ execution and before his body was even in the ground.
At a speech in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama chastised the crowd, telling listeners: “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”
That’s an unbelievable statement from a man who hid in the White House while demonstrators around the world had their “marching shoes” on trying to save Troy Davis’ life.
Moreover, if there’s grumbling and crying among the section of the U.S. population that was most enthusiastic in supporting Obama’s campaign for the presidency, it’s because the combination of his policies and inaction has fueled a deepening economic and social disaster throughout Black America.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE STATISTICS are truly startling. The official Black unemployment rate, at a 27-year high of 16.7 percent, is only the tip of the iceberg. For African American men, joblessness is even higher, at 19.1 percent. For Black youth, it is 46 percent.
The impact of these catastrophic levels of unemployment can’t be understated. They underline the disproportionate impact of the economic crisis in Black communities across the country. While the news media claim that the U.S. has been out of recession for more than two years according to official standards, Black America is suffering an all-out economic depression.
From spiking unemployment, to rising poverty levels, to a historic collapse of homeownership, any economic gains made by African Americans in the last two decades is being wiped out.
In 2010, the median annual income for Black households was $32,068, down 3.2 percent over the year before–compared to an overall median income of $49,445 across the U.S. The proportion of African Americans who lack health insurance rose to 20.8 percent last year. Some 27.4 percent of Blacks were living in poverty in 2010, according to Census Bureau, more than twice the figure for whites.
Earlier this summer, a study was released that charted the collapse of African American wealth. In 2009, the median net work of Black households fell to $5,677 compared to $113,149 for whites. For African Americans, this was a 55 percent drop from 2005, when Black wealth was still an anemic $12,124.
The wave of foreclosures sweeping Black communities is mostly to blame for this decline in Black wealth.
The sub-prime lending mania of the 2000s resulted in Black homeowners being steered toward expensive, predatory home loans, regardless of income levels or credit standing. And now, declining income and unemployment are leaving homeowners that made it so far unable to make mortgage payments that are excessively high because of the sub-prime loans. And as a consequence, the epidemic of foreclosures in Black neighborhoods is driving down the value of remaining houses.
Yet even as the crisis for Black America grows worse, an increasingly vocal group of prominent African American supporters of Obama are denouncing any expectation that the president should be accountable to the Black population that put him in the White House.
When Black media personality Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West organized a 16-city tour to highlight the crisis of poverty growing across the U.S., they were pilloried in the African American media.
In a country with the highest total number of poor people since the government began keeping statistics 51 years ago, and where a record 45 million people survive on food stamps, a “poverty tour” should have been uncontroversial. As Tavis Smiley said of the intention for the tour:
We have to make poor people a priority. When we prioritize something in Washington, they do get done. We prioritize bailing out Wall Street, and it gets done. We prioritize funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it gets done…It’s time for the president to do something about it.
Black liberals should have been lining up to participate in the poverty tour. Instead, West and Smiley were denounced as everything from being jealous and spiteful to being gay lovers for daring to speak out against the inaction of the Obama administration.
By the late summer, even the Congressional Black Caucus was speaking out as Obama set out on a Midwest tour to discuss his proposals for job creation and reviving the economy–and neglected to stop in a single Black community, skipping Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland to name just three of the cities with large populations of jobless Blacks.
As Rep. Maxine Waters put it, “The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is. We don’t know why on this trip that he’s on in the United States now, he’s not in any Black community. We don’t know that.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
BUT INSTEAD of decrying these conditions and pressuring the administration to act, Obama’s apologists have been on the attack. In the last few weeks, three prominent commentaries accused Obama critics of being everything from communists to racists to being out of touch with most Blacks.
For example, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, in an article written for CNN titled “Why Obama’s Black critics are wrong,” claims that the “Black rank-and-file,” by contrast, understands the pressures Obama is under, including:
the limits of his authority and the power of the forces arrayed against him, including a large, albeit amorphous, strain of racial resentment. Pained by the economic recession, they refrain from blaming Obama and instead direct their ire at those who not only saddled the first Black chief executive with such a harrowing task of cleanup, but also obstruct him relentlessly and often with barely disguised contempt.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, blames “Team Commie” for the relentless and “unfair” criticism of Obama:
[B]eing taken seriously involves actual work. It means a poverty tour that doesn’t just bark (Obama the black mascot) but bites (voter registration in swing districts.) If you don’t like the current iteration of America, you need to remember that you are America. The failure to build a more progressive America isn’t merely a testimony to dastardly evil, it’s a testimony to the failure of progressives.
Apparently in Coates and Kennedy’s world, the American presidency is the least powerful position in the world, clearly trumped by the power of “progressives.”
There is no accountability demanded of an administration that dithered in the face of the worst economic crisis in three generations–including during the two years when Democrats controlled both houses of Congresses with a super-majority in each.
Not to be outdone, Nation columnist and former Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Perry claims that the growing skepticism about the sinking Obama administration is rooted in racism–not of reactionary Republicans, but of white liberals who supported Obama in 2008. In an article titled “Black president, double standard: Why white liberals are abandoning Obama,” Harris-Perry compares white electoral support for former President Bill Clinton in his second term to Obama’s in the lead-up to his reelection campaign. As Harris explains the weakening support for Obama:
I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a Black man for president did not prove to be salvific for [whites] or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically reelected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.
Of course, racism is a constant feature of American politics. Continuing African American support for Obama in spite of his refusal to address the economic unraveling of Black America is in large part the result of the brazen racism of the Republican Party and its commitment to see his administration fail. From one lawmaker calling Obama a liar during a State of the Union address to another referring to the president as a “tar baby,” the racism of the Republicans is out in the open.
But the claim that weakening support for Obama is the result of racism among his base supporters in 2008 is dishonest at best.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE CRUMBLING support for Obama isn’t difficult to understand–in fact, it’s easy. Obama ran for the presidency with the slogan “Yes, we can.” But the unspoken slogan of his presidency has been, “No, we won’t.”
It was the Obama administration that has doggedly continued occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq at a cost of more than $2 billion a week–while never admitting that ending those wars could curtail the U.S. government’s budget woes.
It was the Obama administration that pre-emptively offered up cuts in Social Security and Medicare during the debt-ceiling debate this summer as part of a plan to reduce the deficit by as much as $4 trillion.
It was the Obama administration that proposed a budget which cut heating aid for the poor during one of the most brutal winters in memory. And it was the Obama administration that imposed a wage freeze on a federal workforce that is disproportionately made up of Blacks and women.
Obama abandoned his campaign promise to end the Bush-era tax breaks for the super-rich to make a deal with Republicans last December. And his administration is strong-arming state attorney generals into accepting a settlement with the five largest mortgage lenders over their illegal robo-signing procedures that have led to millions of illegal foreclosures.
These are just a few of the bitter pills that people have choked down in the last two and a half years that raise the question: “Is this what we voted for?”
There are other questions that ought to be asked.
Is it really unrealistic to expect the first African American president of the United States–who during his campaign regularly invoked the legacy of the abolitionist movement against slavery and the Southern civil rights movement–to take a stand against the racism, discrimination and injustice that contorts Black life in the U.S.?
Is it just utopian to believe that a Black president could at least make a statement about Troy Davis when almost 1 million people signed petitions to save his life, when a Republican former head of the FBI and a former president spoke out, and when tens of thousands of people around the world rallied and demonstrated to save his life?
If that is utopian and too much to ask, then we must all ask ourselves another question: What is the point of having elected him in the first place? If Obama is as politically impotent as his supporters claim he is, then what was the point of expending time, money and energy on electing him in the first place? And why expend it again in 2012?
Despite the attempts of Kennedy and Harris-Perry to paint criticism of Obama as coming from either liberal white racists or a “sliver” of Blacks, a Washington Post poll found that while overall African American support for the administration remains at 86 percent, Blacks who have “strongly favorable” views of Obama have fallen from 83 percent five months ago to 54 percent today. Similarly, only 54 percent of Blacks think favorably of Obama’s economic policies, compared to 77 percent a year ago.
The Obama administration and its defenders are worried that struggling Blacks won’t come out in the historic numbers as they did for his first election. But ordinary African Americans will have to fight for their own “Black agenda”–since whoever represents the two parties in the next election will have little to say about the conditions in Black America.