We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black President, and it is becoming painfully aware to me that the community he has self-identified as his own is at the breaking point. Social and economic conditions that imperil Black Americans are clearly not the making of this President, but they are uniquely his burden. The euphoria we experienced at seeing him declare victory in Grant Park in Chicago one year ago is giving way to a sense of despair, and frightening thought that we may have really achieved a pyrrhic victory, if one at all.
For some time now, we conditioned ourselves to view our present status through the prism of history, and find solace in rejoicing our progress in America. Yet, if we take an honest look at where we are today, the material gains of a small and suspect Black middle class pale in comparison to the dysfunction and distress most Blacks endure on a daily basis. Poverty remains a cruel inheritance of Black children, and its grip felt by children and adults through chronic illnesses, substandard housing, illiteracy and poor education, and early death. Black men are America’s pariahs, whether poor and incarcerated or educated and the President of the United States. Black women, faring somewhat better economically than their male peers, confront the necessity to earn a living while bearing principal responsibility for raising our children. Success stories do exist, but they stand as ripples against much larger waves that are drowning more of us in the undertow every day.
We can all agree that some of the pain is self-inflicted. The violence we are seeing unfold in our community is the product of a self-hatred rooted in the cultural debasement of Black people. Yet, before we all jump on the “personal responsibility” train we must also acknowledge that it left from the station of institutional racism. Whether sentencing disparities, employment discrimination, lax gun laws, substandard housing or inadequate public education, civil society has reserved a special portion of disdain for Black Americans. It is a bitter pill to swallow given the degree and magnitude of Black contribution and embrace of this nation, even when we have endured hostilities for simply claiming rights conferred by law.
All of which brings us back to our President. I think it is safe to say that no one expected him to wave a wand and address all of the problems plaguing the Black community. In fact, I think many of us tempered our expectations for fear of the emotional plunge when campaign rhetoric met head on with the realities of our nation’s politics. We all, however, thought the mere presence of a Black man standing behind the seal of the President would force consideration of a host issues that society routinely dismisses as illegitimate, trivial or vestiges of a past that the nation has conveniently buried. So, a presidential trip to post-Katrina New Orleans is about much more than a historic storm’s devastation. It is the opportunity to engage in a real dialogue about race, class and American values. President Obama should have done so during his recent fly-by in the Crescent city but he chose instead to ignore the pressing needs of a community for nothing more than a photo-op.
If bad exists beyond what we currently see in the Black community, we are at the edge of the cliff. Our children and youth have become target practice in gang warfare, unemployment and long-term joblessness has taken residence among us, incarceration has decimated our male population, and illness and disease has made Black death a growth industry. Worse, we now have the distinction of witnessing a Black President who appears to avoid direct comment on any situation that is racially driven or the result of racial discrimination. His reaction to former President Jimmy Carter’s honest description of racially motivated opposition to the President was both telling and sad, for it revealed a calculated effort to gain favor at the expense of the truth.
Mr. President, your community needs you. For all the pride, we exhibit in claiming you as our own, and casting you as the rightful offspring of the civil rights movement, history will be less kind if your tenure in the White House frames our demise. The choice is yours to make. The change is ours to demand.