Will Obama's race help or hurt black America?

Miami HeraldJanuary 18, 2009 

For black America, the extraordinary election of Barack Obama -- that psychologically charged, affirming moment -- inspired hopes that issues historically important to the community will have a fair shot.

But those hopes are sure to be tamped down by an economy that has left millions without jobs or an affordable place to live.

''The new president has a handful to deal with when he steps into office,'' says Bessie Fletcher, founder of the National Association of the Mother & Daughter Bonding Network in Hollywood. "He is coming into office with such force that the expectations are exceptionally high. Some people may be looking for immediate gratification, like somehow on the 21st the budget will be done and the war over. He needs time.''

But, she says, "now we are at the table.''

Two days before Obama's inauguration, the complicated conversation among black scholars, social critics, activists and ordinary people bound by their shared history is about whether a black president is uniquely qualified to address the national black agenda, a loose framework of core issues, including income disparity, inferior healthcare, academic achievement gaps and gun violence.

Or will his race hamper progress?

Skeptics fear that the presidency of Obama, who ran a remarkably race-neutral campaign, may cripple the argument that blacks still have a long way to go. They believe his proposals for change will be viewed through a racial filter.

''The concern is real that an African American in the White House will allow some white people to say the problem is over,'' says Michael Wenger of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a national black think tank in Washington, D.C. "he problem is Obama's election does not diminish institutional racism and all the issues that need to be confronted. We are still facing poverty. Schools are still resegregating. Our young men are still incarcerated disproportionately.''

Others believe that only a high-ranking black American -- someone particularly sensitive to urban living conditions -- can finally make meaningful changes.

''Obama never put forth a black agenda in his campaign,'' says Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor and author of Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics.

"He did give speeches in which he made reference to race, but they were an aside from his day-to-day stump speech. He has put some promises on paper, so we have the right to have some expectations. The thing the black community must do is help him with the larger issues -- the economy, the war -- giving ourselves moral capital for later.''

The outcome, over the next four years, lies in Obama's ability to navigate race and public policy.

''The president has put together a Cabinet that I believe will treat ethnic groups in an equal way,'' says U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., who has declared his candidacy for retiring Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate seat. "People of color are not asking for special treatment -- rather, equal treatment. I believe that this administration will be the great equalizer of our time.''

Black organizations have been working on action plans, and some -- such as the National Urban League's Opportunity Compact -- have already been presented to Obama or his transition team.

Last month, a coalition of black leaders met at the State of the Black World conference in New Orleans to formulate a priority policy agenda. The goals include:

• A moratorium on mortgage foreclosures and the strengthening of the Community Reinvestment Act, which is designed to reduce discriminatory credit practices in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

• The enactment of more legislation aimed at reducing gun violence and ending the racial disparity in criminal sentencing.

• The broadening of federal laws to allow the restoration of voting rights to some former convicts.

• The creation of a universal healthcare policy.

• More funding for urban schools.

''Our agenda still requires a highlighting of the disproportion of suffering and misery of black people,'' Cornel West, professor, author and social commentator, told The Miami Herald a few days before the election. ``We are going to have to put pressure on to let him know we are part of his public interest.''

As a component of his transition, Obama has established a White House Office of Urban Policy, which promises to strengthen the federal commitment to cities, where blacks are traditionally concentrated.

''I remain concerned that we are creating jobs and building roads in Baghdad, but not in South Florida,'' says U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.. "Schools are being built in Mosul, but not in Miramar. Water-treatment plants are being built in Basra but not in Belle Glade. This has got to change.''

The Urban Policy plan calls for building and supporting ''innovation clusters'' -- regional centers such as The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and Nashville's entertainment district. The federal cluster program will provide $200 million in planning and matching grants. It also calls for greater access to venture-capital investment for small and minority-owned businesses, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit program, and an increase in the minimum wage from $6.55 to $9.50 by 2011.

Obama has also named or nominated several blacks to top posts, including Valerie Jarrett as a member of the transition team; Eric Holder as the first black U.S. attorney general; Lisa Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ron Kirk for U.S. trade representative.

''I think the key issue here is that Obama will make a difference in the way that people see African Americans, in how they view our culture,'' says Yolanda Cash Jackson, a shareholder in the law firm Becker & Poliakoff who lobbies for such clients as Miami Gardens, Opa-locka, Florida Memorial University and Bethune-Cookman College. "He may help break some barriers, but we know he can't save the world.''

However, Wenger says that Obama can now address issues historically important to blacks within the context of larger problems.

For example, he says, Obama can confront unemployment, wage disparity and job training as part of the upcoming stimulus package, or the resegregation and inequitable funding of public schools and the No Child Left Behind initiative as part of education reform.

But for now, ''it feels like somebody has tilled off a layer of the field,'' says Darlene Bell-Alexander, 43, a lawyer who founded Ms. Permello's Reading Room in Perrine last year to help boost academic achievement of children. ``Now we have fresh ground upon which to build our community.''

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service