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What Does Barack Obama Owe the Black Community?

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Having been reelected president, again with an overwhelming black vote, many ask the question: Just what does Obama owe the black community? After all, he won over 90 percent of the black vote compared with just 40 percent of the white vote (and just over 70 percent of the Latino and Asian vote). In an increasingly partisan political environment (and even when things do not appear as divided), winners expect a good share of the spoils. Bottom line: Obama owes quite a bit to the black community, but not because of the vote, his color or even the presumably more liberal politics of his Democratic Party. Attention should be paid to the black community because, despite all the misplaced rhetoric of our becoming a colorblind, post-racial society, nothing could be further from the truth. And the federal government, among others, has an obligation to address the continuing significance of race in America.

A few facts: Black families today earn less than 60 percent of what white families earn on average. Black poverty continues to be almost three times higher than white poverty. Black unemployment is double white unemployment. These disparities have persisted for decades. What has changed is the disparity in wealth. Since wealth data have been available the typical black family has had about one 10th the wealth of the typical white family. When the foreclosure and related economic crises of the 2000s hit, black wealth dropped to one 20th that of whites. Between 2005 and 2009 black families lost more than half of their wealth, compared with a 16-percent decline for whites. Latinos fared worse, experiencing a 66-percent drop. Contributing to and compounding these problems is the fact that blacks have long been twice as likely as whites to be rejected for a mortgage loan, and in the age of mass incarceration, black men are six times as likely to be behind bars as are whites.

No doubt there are several factors that account for these disparities. Many point to cultural factors, arguing that young blacks in particular reject education as "acting white" and instead adopt a separatist orientation, focusing on their status as victims. Consequently, from this perspective, they are committing what John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist and political commentator, refers to as "black self-sabotage," keeping them from taking advantage of the opportunities that are available. But as Harvard sociologist William J. Wilson has noted, culture is rooted in a broader structural context of job loss, failing schools and a range of public policies and private practices that have kept black communities in their place.

When a home insurance agent in Boston is asked by his manager, "Do the kids in the neighborhood play hockey or basketball?," when loan officers for Wells Fargo refer to predatory mortgage loans as "ghetto loans" for "mud people," and when a Republican candidate for president refers to Obama as "the best food-stamp president in American history," the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is not that far off. Explicit, overt forms of bigotry have faded in recent years. Color-coded water fountains and facilities have long disappeared. Life is infinitely better for most people of color than was the case just a couple of generations back. But racial disparities, fueled in good measure by various forms of discrimination, sometimes driven by overt prejudice and sometimes not, persist.

No president alone can remedy these inequities, but the president can use the bully pulpit and the resources of the federal government to ameliorate them. Obama is clearly doing more than his immediate predecessors. In 2008, in his famous Philadelphia speech on race, Obama stated that "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," and during his administration civil rights enforcement efforts have increased at the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies. Obama's Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Schools initiatives are bringing new resources to long-troubled communities. In the first week of the new year, the federal government reached a $10-billion settlement with Bank of America and another $8.5-billion settlement with five major banks (including Bank of America) to resolve some of the servicing and investment practices that led to the foreclosure problems that have cost more than 4 million families their homes. This is progress. But as Tom Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, stated in a talk at the Center for American Progress in the spring of 2012, though his office has accomplished a lot, there is a lot more to do.

More could be done, and it is up to the advocacy groups that got Obama elected to continue to pressure him to do the right thing. The Occupy Wall Street movement illustrates the kind of actions that are necessary, actions of a sort that was more prominent at the height of the civil rights movement. Inequality (not just by race or ethnicity) is once again a topic of discussion in no small part because of the various strands of Occupy activism that have sprung up in the U.S. and over 1,500 cities worldwide. It is unlikely that the recent agreement to raise taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent would have been negotiated in the absence of that pressure. Further progress on housing and housing finance, jobs, community development, education (as opposed to incarceration) and other areas is unlikely without such grassroots, bottom-up pressure.

So Obama owes much to the black community. But this debt is not simply a political due bill. Much remains to be overcome from the nation's racial history. Whoever happens to be president should be leading the way.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Janell Ross, click here. To read the companion blog post by Benjamin Todd Jealous of the NAACP, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.