I have to admit I was a bit perplexed when I was a panelist recently at Tavis Smiley's "We Count: The Black Agenda is the American Agenda" forum, which focused heavily on what President Barack Obama has not done for the black community, rather than the significant down payment he has made in our communities this past year.
With unemployment and the foreclosure crisis hitting black communities especially hard, I can understand the frustration. But I was surprised that the billions of dollars in meaningful investments the president has already made were such a small part of the discussion.
When Tavis and I worked together on the best-selling Covenant with Black America book in 2006, we envisioned it as precisely the kind of "black agenda" that Tavis brought the panel together to discuss. The Covenant -- which we described as a "national plan of action to address the primary concerns of African Americans today, from health to housing, from crime to criminal justice, from education to economic parity" -- seems like a fair standard to hold President Obama up to.
From where I sit -- with more than three decades of experience working to make public policies more fair and inclusive of all people -- the past year has seen tremendous investment in the African-American community right along the lines we laid out four years ago.
Putting aside the nearly $1 trillion in stimulus spending (including hundreds of billions in social, safety-net spending like food stamps and unemployment benefits), the historic health care legislation alone will dramatically improve the lives of the 7 million African-Americans without health insurance. But also in that health care bill are little-noticed provisions to restructure the college loan system to push $36 billion into the Pell Grant program (one out of every six Pell Grant recipients is black) and invest $2.55 billion directly into historically black colleges and universities.
Far beyond that single bill, though, it's clear President Obama has laid the groundwork for an extraordinary growth in economic and social opportunity for millions of African Americans. The facts are there for anyone to see. So far, the president has invested or proposed:
- $5 billion for home weatherization, targeting energy efficiency and jobs to low-income communities
- $250 million for Choice Neighborhoods, so people can live in a community connected to true opportunity
- $400 million to open new supermarkets and farmers markets in underserved communities
- $600 million for summer youth jobs
- $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods, to spread the powerful message of the Harlem Children's Zone
- $8.1 billion for nutrition support programs--a400 million boost from last year
- $9.4 billion to help preserve more than 1 million rental units nationwide
- $4 billion for Race to the Top education grants
- $10.2 billion for early childhood education
- $144 million for prisoner re-entry programs
- $4 billion for Community Development Block Grants--plus another150 million in competitive grants to spark economic development innovation
- $4 billion in job-training programs for youth, displaced workers and the unemployed
- An 11 percent funding increase in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division
Does that sound like a president who is unaware of the challenges facing our communities? These investments appear right on target. Many of these investments build directly on the assertion I have made for years that, in America today, where you live has become a proxy for opportunity. African Americans, in particular, will benefit from the investments that improve the conditions in our nation's cities and poor neighborhoods.
That sounds like a black agenda aimed at expanding opportunity for the next generation of our young people. Is there more to do? Of course. But acknowledging progress is also very important.