A spat has developed among some prominent black leaders about the extent to which President Barack Obama should be pushed to give special attention to African American issues. Some believe that holding the president's feet to the fire is not necessary (or potentially politically perilous for him) and that some of the unique issues facing black people can be addressed within the context of larger solutions.
They, in supporting their position, have erected a ridiculous straw man to under-gird their position: President Obama is not the President of black America and should not be held to that standard. This straw man that, if unchecked, will get in the way of addressing some of the crushing issues facing African Americans. For me, it's perfectly acceptable for groups of Americans to push the government to deal with their causes, so black leaders who want to go easy on this president because he is black are failing their constituents and need to reverse course -- now.
I believe this argument is a straw man because I have yet to hear one reasonable, credible person argue that Obama should be the President of Black America or solely any other segment of the nation. But that doesn't mean that issues of particular importance to different constituencies should not be given extra attention. Special problems require special attention. Need proof? Consider what has happened with Wall Street. A massive problem -- created by Wall Street's own greed left to run amok in a deregulated environment -- resulted in taxpayers convulsing more than ONE TRILLION DOLLARS to attempt to fix the problem.
The black community certainly has some responsibility for its current situation. The reality is, however, that with some black communities suffering from unemployment rates above 30 percent (In October 2009, the jobless rate for black males age 16-to-24 was 34.5 percent in my home city of Washington, D.C., a place that has made out reasonably well in the current recession and Milwaukee, Wisconsin has recently had a Black male unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent) and dangerously high dropout and criminal justice supervision rates, a unique, special, and acute problem has been established that requires attention above and beyond what our leaders -- elected and appointed, and without regard to race are willing to acknowledge.
Black unemployment won't get significantly reversed by treating it the same as white unemployment. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 10.7 percent of white men over the age of 20 were unemployed; 17.3 percent of black males were unemployed at the same time. White women over the age of 20 have an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, while 13.3 percent of black women are jobless (this is a devastating number given the disproportionate number of single-woman headed households in the black community). Whites between the ages of 16-19 had an unemployment rate of 24.1 percent; the black unemployment rate for same aged blacks was 43.5 percent.
Groups of Americans, whether organized along ideological, religious, cultural, business, or other kinds of lines can, and do, ask the president for special attention to their issues. African Americans, however, are expected to sit in a corner and wait for the President to get around to their concerns whenever it's convenient. I say no. Credibility requires black leaders to make sure that Congress and the White House, without regard to partisan control or the race of the leadership, that black issues are not ignored.
America should not fear a "black agenda" any more than it would fear an "environmental agenda" or an "education agenda". As I see it, the "black agenda" is simply about making sure that some of the most acute issues facing black communities across the country are respected and acted upon. Black leaders who run from a "black agenda" to protect the "black President" need to be reassessed by those who put them in their positions.
Michael K. Fauntroy is assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com
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