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Monday, December 7, 2009

Walters on the President and a Black Agenda

Ron Walters exposes an apparent "blind spot" when it comes to the President's economic agenda. When it comes to the severe problems facing black America, Walters points out that the President's position is that the best way to to address these problems is to help America in general. There are two recent posts on this blog that provide other perspectives on this debate. One says the President is making progress on a progressive agenda. The other says the black community faces a "depression." Evidently, making progress on a progressive agenda is not sufficient to address the dire conditions faced by the black community. Politically universalitic policies might be appealing but when such policies do not address severe problems faced by a particular community, particularly the black community, the appeals of the Congressional Black Caucus and Walters must be addressed. RGN

Obama Rejects Special Needs of the Black Community
By Ron Walters

It was somewhat painful to write the above headline, since I along with 16 million blacks who voted for Barack Obama did so, partly on the strength of the belief that he would indeed understand and take seriously the needs of the black community. Such headlines are sweeping the country depicting his response to the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) challenge to his economic policies.

Last month Rep. Maxine Waters (CA) led ten of her CBC colleagues to vote against the Financial Services Bill coming out of committee. Their opposition was based on the clamor from heads of a large segment of the black economy: auto dealers, bankers, accountants, businesspersons, broadcasters and others who cannot get credit from banks and financial agencies – even those owned by the US government -- and are facing disaster. The CBC went into negotiations with Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff, but little was accomplished. They then, held a press conference and announced as much, saying that broadly the White House was unresponsive and that “we have not been forceful in our efforts to protect the most vulnerable of our population,” and that the White House takes this part of its constituency for granted but is solicitous to Blue Dog Conservative Democrats. This action was taken, they explained, to educate those in the White House who do not advocate on behalf of blacks or the working class, since “we can no longer afford to have public policy defined by the world view of Wall Street.”

In an interview with Justin Hyde of the Detroit Free Press and Richard Wolfe of USA Today, President Obama was asked about the charges of the CBC and he said: “The most important thing I can do for the African American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again.” Then he continued, “I think it’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.” I had long thought that this was his governing philosophy but here are the words of it spelled out.

But there is a gross contradiction at the heart of his statement. If it is “mistake” to think about ethnic segments of the country in his governance, then why did he sign an executive order mandating that heads of executive agencies affect consultation with Indian tribal governments, or sign an executive order mandating the increased participation of Asians and Pacific Islanders in federal programs, or say in a speech to the Hispanic Caucus this year that when their unemployment number reached over 10% that was not just a problem for Hispanics, “it was a problem for the nation.” No such statement has been made by the White House about the 15.7% rate of official black unemployment.

Indeed, if Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Clinton had felt that considering ethnicity in governance was a “mistake” what would be the character of black progress? The issue here is that these presidents did not deal with African American issues out of the goodness of their own hearts, but because there was a national crisis that called for it, or because blacks pushed them to the wall. The latter has been one of the routine answers to the question of whether President Obama would deal earnestly with problems faced by the black community, given that many whites expected that he would conduct his administration by handing out favors to them. No doubt, Obama feels he must guard against that in order to maintain white votes, but it puts blacks in a box, the only route out of which is to “make him do it.”

The integrity of black political participation and the security of the black community demand a president who is responsive to their needs in exchange for the 97%investment in his presidency. His stated governing philosophy should also mean that the celebration is over and that we must make clear to him that we will not be taken for granted and we will not willingly be subject to the spoils of a trickle-down economic strategy that will take years to rehabilitate our communities. So, I think that since none of the members of the CBC, nor black economists, nor the Black Civil Rights leaders were invited to the White House Jobs Summit that in the month of January in honor of the defiant spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Congressional Black Caucus should host one and invite the people who should be there to affect a bottom up, urgent strategy.

The President has thrown down the gauntlet; black leadership must pick it up.

Dr. Ron Walters is Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His latest book is: The Price of Racial Reconciliation (University of Michigan Press)

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