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Dr. Boyce Watkins Headshot

Yes Barack, You ARE The President of Black America

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During a recent interview with Black Enterprise, President Barack Obama was asked about some of the criticism he's received for allegedly not doing enough to support black businesses.  In response to the question, the president had this to say:

"My general view has been consistent throughout, which is that I want all businesses to succeed. I want all Americans to have opportunity. I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America, but the programs that we have put in place have been directed at those folks who are least able to get financing through conventional means, who have been in the past locked out of opportunities that were available to everybody. So, I'll put my track record up against anybody in terms of us putting in place broad-based programs that ultimately had a huge benefit for African American businesses."

The president's remarks reflect a consistent perception that there are members of the African American community who expect too much of the Obama Administration. The portrayal is that they are demanding that Obama re-paint the White House black and put a picture of Malcolm X on the front door. The president is absolutely correct that he has to be sure to serve all of his constituents, not just the black ones. That point has been duly noted and consistently reiterated by both the Obama Administration and all of its surrogates in the African American community.

The concern about the president's remarks is that he has actually forgotten one undeniable truth:  Mr. Obama, you are the president of black America, in addition to being the president of white America, Jewish America, Gay/Lesbian America and all the other groups that came together to form the melting pot that broke their backs to put you into office. The "I am not just here for black folks" defense certainly excludes you from having to spend a disproportionate amount of time looking out for black interests, but it does not exclude you from the responsibility to treat the black community with the same degree of legitimacy as every other group that is being consistently patronized by the White House.

If I own a restaurant and my own family comes through the door, I can't simply say "I'm not just here to serve you" and then leave them without any food. This is especially true if my relatives loaned me 20% of the money I needed to buy the restaurant in the first place. Instead, I should make sure they are taken care of like the other patrons, and then tend to the rest of my job. By refusing to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus for years at a time, and speaking specifically to almost none of the issues plaguing black America (i.e. mass incarceration, urban violence and unemployment inequality), it's easy to argue that the Obama Administration has gone too far in taking the black vote for granted.

We've all seen this before: A teacher has her child in class and treats her worse than the other children, or the football coach who mistreats and humiliates his son in front of the other athletes.  All of us are tempted to substitute preferential treatment for abusive treatment. And when one considers the fact that black quality of life has worsened over the last four years, while simultaneously improving for whites, it's hard not to argue that the Obama administration has pandered to conservative (and racist) white Americans by showing how far it can go in ignoring African American interests.

So yes, Mr. President, you are the president of black America. The same inconvenience being hoisted onto your administration when we ask for targeted (not coincidental) action is no less than the inconvenience being thrust onto the black community when people are asked to take off work to show up to the polls. One favor deserves another, and it is disappointing to see a presidency predicated on the idea that black Americans are their employees.

Anyone who compares transcripts of Obama speeches to black Americans vs. speeches to other constituencies notices that the tone tends to become a bit condescending, non-committal and even disrespectful when black people are being addressed (as we were once told to "stop complaining, take off our bedroom slippers and put on our marching boots" - something that would never be said to gay people or women's groups).  If anyone can prove me wrong on that point, please do so.

The modified rhetoric is not by accident, since the white guys working with Obama in the White House know that black people can be swayed more easily by style over substance.  Also, it's easy to interpret standard black political advocacy as stereotypical whining and complaining of welfare recipients (we are the only group with a collection of media people telling all Obama critics to be quiet).  Even Mitt Romney leaned on stereotypes when he said that NAACP members booed him because they wanted "free stuff."   But when white folks show up at the White House door and demand action for the issues that matter most to them, they are simply utilizing their democratic voice. That, my friends, is White Supremacy 101, and you don't have to be a racist to use it to your advantage.

If the respect shown to black Americans does not match that which is shown to the gay community, Hispanic community and other demographics, then the Obama Administration has fallen woefully short in its duty to America. The president has stood strong for marriage equality for gay Americans, so I'm sure he'll understand those of us who stand up for political equality for African Americans. If the action and rhetoric is not equally respectful across the board, then it is entirely unacceptable. There are no two ways about it.

The saddest thing about the experience of the black political orphans in America is that when you ask them why they support the Obama administration, a large majority of them can only say "they're better than the Republicans." That's like a wife saying "I'll never divorce my husband because he's better than the man who used to beat me." Perhaps a more meaningful endorsement from his wife could be "I won't ever leave my husband because I am absolutely sure he loves me."  Even the most ardent Obama supporter can't make such a claim.

The very same broken, two party political system that the Obama Administration complains about is the one that's keeping them in power. The black vote is held hostage with fear of a Republican presidency, not hope for a better future. Rather than being able to point to any evidence that black quality of life has improved over the last four years, they simply win the black vote by default. There is not much to celebrate about that and more should be expected from any politician who asks us for so much.

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