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Dr. Boyce Watkins Headshot

Should Black Americans Expect More From Obama Than Any Other President?

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I've heard people say that the expectations on Barack Obama are greater from our community than they have been for any other president.  When someone highlights the fact that black unemployment has actually worsened under the Obama Administration while improving within the white community, the quickest reaction I typically hear is "He's president of all of America, not just black America," which appears to be an excuse for him not to do anything.  There is no question that President Obama has bigger issues to worry about than us 'lil old black folks,' but we seem to become pretty important to the White House around election time.

While one might argue that some black Americans expect more from Obama than any other president, we must also remember that we supported him more than any other president. So, I argue that, if we are being asked to expect the same from him that we would anyone else, then we should give him the same support as any other Democrat on election day.  In other words, don't ask for more if you are not prepared to give more.  Extraordinary benefits and expectations are a double-edged sword.

Has the Obama presidency been good for black America?  It depends on who you ask.  But what I ask, quite simply, is that we focus on tangible results and not symbolism when making our assessment. Singing Al Green songs might seem pretty cool, but it's not so cool when black Americans are singing the blues in the midst of foreclosure, poverty and unemployment unlike anything we've seen in the last 25 years.

I long for the day that the leading reason to support the Democrats in the next election doesn't simply amount to, "Well, the Republicans are going to be much worse."  That's like a woman choosing whether to work for the pimp who beats her or the one who steals all of her money. Perhaps she should remove herself from prostitution entirely.

Three years ago, the Obama Administration made it clear that they would not have a targeted policy to deal with racial inequality in wealth or unemployment.  The president said that he believed that "the rising tide will lift all boats," implying that targeted policy would not be necessary to deal with inequality.  My Finance PhD led me to interpret these words as a racialized-version of trickle-down economics, another failed policy of the Reagan Administration.  The notion that racial inequality will simply "fix itself" is socially lazy, naive and counterproductive. The same government that played a role in solidifying inequality in our society must also play a part in correcting that inequality -- we didn't get to this place by ourselves.

Well, the facts have made it clear that the "rising tides" policy has been a miserable failure.  Over the last three years, white unemployment has improved, while black unemployment has gotten worse. During the last two months, when the Obama Administration celebrated improved employment numbers for the economy, the fact was that these improvements missed the black community entirely. During the past year, white unemployment has dropped from 8.3 percent to 7.5 percent, while black unemployment has risen from 15.2 percent to 15.8 percent, more than double that of white Americans.

Supporting a black president is very important.  But the same courage that it takes for us to get out and vote for the president must be returned with courageous policy that reflects the interests of those who support him.  You can't ask for extraordinary support and then turn around and say, "Hey, I'm just a regular guy."   Also, avoiding favoritism toward the black community is very different from the abandonment of political responsibility.  There are times when it seems that the administration works so hard to avoid appearing biased that it goes to the other extreme - sort of like when a father hires his son and then treats him worse than everyone else.

At the end of the day, the proof must be in the pudding.  If the numbers on unemployment, foreclosure and wealth inequality show that Obama has done a good job for black Americans, then we should support him.  But if the numbers do not justify his re-election, we should not allow anyone to play the race card to convince us to vote blindly.  In fact, I don't even blame those who choose to sit out of the election in protest.  Al Sharpton, Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Melissa Harris Perry or other Obama surrogates should not be making the decision for you - taking care of a few select members of the black community is not the same as taking care of the community itself.  We must be sure to vote intelligently.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracusef University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.