President Obama, What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Lisa M. Armstrong

Many feel the president has neglected the African American community, but should he be black first, and president second?

Last week, BET began running an anti-Obama ad sponsored by Pivot Point, a conservative PAC. In the ad, two young African Americans ask, as Janet Jackson famously put it, “What have you done for me lately?” They criticize the president for cutting aid to black colleges, and say, “His support of gay marriage is a slap in the face for people of faith.”

Wayne Perryman, an African American, Washington-state-based pastor, worked with the PAC to create the ad.

Perryman feels that African Americans are blindly supporting Barack Obama, simply because he is black, and that they should not support the president in his bid for reelection because he has done little to address the specific needs of African Americans during his four years in office.

“Our communities are in deplorable condition. Sometimes I watch TV and weep,” says Perryman. “African Americans are so loyal to a party and a black man that they ignore the condition of their people. Everyone had hope that with this first black president our issues would be addressed, but [Obama] blatantly turned against specific things that blacks had requested.”

It is true that the president falls short if you look solely at the statistics for poverty, education and incarceration—issues that most overwhelmingly affect African Americans. Though the unemployment figures dropped to 7.8 percent in September, that number is 13.4 percent for blacks. Twenty-eight percent of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of whites. More than 900,000 black men are incarcerated, and African Americans are more likely to attend high-poverty schools and less likely than any other group to attend college.

But then, there is context. The black unemployment rate has for decades been almost double that of whites. The president has made efforts to improve educational opportunities for blacks: In February 2010, he signed an executive order granting $850 million in funding over the next 10 years for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and in July 2012, he established the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

To his critics, President Obama has said simply that he is not the president of black America, he is the president of the United States of America. By putting policies in place to help all Americans, he, by extension, is addressing the needs of blacks.

But talk show host and political commentator Tavis Smiley, who has for years criticized Obama for not doing more for the black community, argues that the president’s “a rising tide lifts all boats” approach is not the right one.

“If you are in a car accident and have a head trauma, the surgeon would not start operating on your feet, he would start at the part of the body where the injury is,” says Smiley. “African Americans are suffering disproportionately, we are the ones catching the most hell. We’re the ones with head trauma, and what do we get from the surgeon? He says, ‘I am not the surgeon for black folk, I am the surgeon for everybody.’”

It seems, to Perryman and others who share his view, that the president is reluctant to even mention race. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that in Obama’s first two years in office, he spoke about race less than any other Democrat since 1961.

The question people like Perryman ask is, what is he afraid of?

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