NEW YORK — When President Barack Obama takes the stage here Thursday night at the NAACP’s annual conference, he will be greeted by a base of black supporters who see him as the crowning achievement in the struggle for civil rights. Six months into his presidency, there are few signs that black support for Obama is softening.
Yet, many are hoping to hear from Obama something that they have yet to hear—specific plans to address the black agenda. Obama’s broad approach to race has left some cold and has fueled the idea that he is punting on the issue and ignoring the specificity of problems in the black community where, for instance, the unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent.
They might be disappointed. White House aides said in his address tonight Obama will touch on the organization’s accomplishments, cast himself as a beneficiary, talk broadly about his domestic agenda, but not unveil any specific policy.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous praised Obama for several early steps in his presidency but said he wants to hear from Obama a commitment to ending discrimination in his remarks tonight, and a recognition of the work of the NAACP, celebrating its 100th anniversary.
"He ensured that a significant amount of money stayed in the stimulus bill for public schools. He appointed Attorney General [Eric] Holder and soon to be Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor, all of those are significant steps,” Jealous said. “In just the six months he has delivered tangible results and he has set the stage for even bigger things to come . . .”
Yet if his remarks amount to a rah-rah NAACP speech, then “people will be pretty happy and then they will wake up the next day feeling empty,” Jealous said.
National Urban League President Marc Morial said Obama has “gotten off to a quick and decisive” start, but said that his organization “is not a cheering squad 100 percent of the time.”
“We are going to give him our honest views if we don’t agree with the direction of his administration,” said Morial, who heads the national Urban League. “We are serious about economic issues, jobs, health and housing and minority businesses.”
The disparities are well known and were ticked off by Morial in a report on the state of black America. The report talked of two black Americas, one prosperous and politically engaged, and another, beset by social problems and inequities—high incarceration, foreclosure, drop out, and unemployment rates.
Yet Obama has rarely spoken directly of those problems, choosing instead a one-size-fits-all approach when, for instance, he was asked whether he would do any targeted intervention to reduce the black unemployment rate.
“[T]he best thing that I can do for the African American community or the Latino community or the Asian community, whatever community, is to get the economy as a whole moving…. if I don't do that, then I'm not going to be able to help anybody,” he said. “So part of what we want to do is to find tools that will give people more opportunity, but the most important thing I can do is to lift the economy overall. And that's what my strategy is focused on.”
In a taped speech in February at the “State of the Black Union” conference Obama acknowledged the high black unemployment rate and said that “tough times for America often mean tougher times for African-Americans.” He called his agenda a progressive one that would make a big difference to the black community.
With Holder as the attorney general, many believe that issues like the high incarceration rate, sentencing disparities, and racial profiling will finally be addressed.
Holder won plaudits from many for coming out early on in a speech during Black History month, calling America a “nation of cowards” for not talking more openly about race. But Obama backed away from the comments, signaling a more cautious, and some say unsatisfying, approach to racial issues.
Still, his support remains strong.
“The reality is, Barack Obama can go into some black audiences and read the phone book and people would say that’s the best sounding phone book I have ever heard before. We don’t want a whole lot from him, not yet at least,” said Michael Fauntroy, a public policy professor at George Mason University.
“But there is a small and growing sentiment among some African Americans that perhaps we need a more forward and overt conversations about some things. He is taking the approach that in dealing with the economy and health care that he is dealing with black issues, but there are some other issues that have a unique impact on African Americans.”
A recent New York Times story showed that black unemployment in New York rose four times as fast as white unemployment—80,000 more blacks than whites are unemployed, even though whites outnumber blacks by 1.5 million.
Jesse Jackson, Sr. referenced those findings in talking about the need for a specific focus on the disparities. He said that Obama “has made the right moves in the right direction…and he has a trust surplus,” and expected that Obama will say tonight that he is “grateful for a 100 years of struggle for freedom.”
But he also said that there is a need for a more targeted stimulus.
“Rising tides will not lift all boats. Some boats are locked in and getting them out requires investment. Urban America will recover when it’s targeted,” Jackson said. “I think he has opened the window for hope and opportunity, but those who have the most need, whether they are inner city blacks or whites in Appalachia, must be targeted. The banks were targeted — now the most unemployed need a targeted stimulus.”
With the White House Office of Urban Affairs, and with the stimulus funds, some see an opportunity to do just that and address the disparities, without getting into race.
“As Obama said, metropolitan areas can’t be looked on as problems, but solutions. Who lives in metropolitan areas? You upgrade the education there, the transportation there, you fight the crime there. Who benefits?” said former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder said. “I don’t think it can be listed and called the black agenda. I think it should be an agenda that can uplift people who would be left out and that includes African-Americans. You do what you need to do with it without calling it that.”
Strategically, that kind of raceless, universal approach served Obama well in the campaign, and he was able to hold racial issues at arms length, with the implicit understanding among blacks that he couldn’t be “the black president.” But with that tacit agreement, there were also expectations, University of Maryland professor Ron Walters, said.
“They want the agenda to be recognized but they are reluctant to press it. There is going to be a lot of listening going on to see if he begins to press aspects of this agenda,” said Walters, who ran Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. “And there’s going to be a ‘where’s the beef, come to Jesus’ meeting somewhere down the line without any concrete action.”