On most occasions when I hear a sitting President admit that our nation is weighted down by poverty and cannot ignore income equality, it is a cause for celebration. Yet, yesterday’s remarks by President Obama leaves me scratching my head. Has the President just now come to terms with the devastating impact of income inequality on millions of Americans, particularly African-Americans, in the rear view reflection of a historic recession that rivaled the Great Depression? His new focus is likely too late and too little to matter. And that is a real missed opportunity and tragedy, and does not bode well for the legacy of the nation’s first African-American to lead our nation from the Oval Office.
It was the civil unrest of the 1960s that sparked my interest in politics and opened my eyes to the possibility that public policy could affect positive change in the lives of people. It is why in 4th grade I started writing President Lyndon Johnson because he seemed to bear witness to the service aspect of elected office. A Senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey, caught my attention after hearing him speak so passionately on civil rights and equality. And a historic presidential cabinet appointee, Dr. Robert Weaver, who would later become one of my mentors and a friend, was my role model for the intellectual examination of poverty and the transference of that knowledge into public policy. In other words, poverty did not have to be a terminal illness and our nation could do something about it with courageous political leadership.
The data on income inequality has been consistent for some time now. More and more our nation is being divided into two – the haves and the haven’t got a chance. This was the case when the President came into office and has become more so during his tenure. Faced with an economy that was imploding the President initiated an economic recovery plan that focused on shoring up the nation’s banking infrastructure and salvaging the automobile industry, while also trying to stem the bleeding from the home mortgage crisis that was tied to the financial sector. Little attention was paid to the issue of how the structural shift in the economy had forced millions of Americans into the abyss of long-term and possibly irreversible joblessness, and many middle income workers stranded at the mercy of corporate excess and wrongdoing.
Mostly affected by this economic meltdown have been young adults and African-Americans, and mostly Black men. Despite some acknowledgement by candidate Obama of the disparity in economic opportunity, and early attention in his administration to this issue by the Labor Department, there has been little by way of substantive policy put forth to address poverty and racial disparities in the economy. In the past when pressed, the standard administration line has been one of color-blind blindness, serving to support the post-racial narrative of the first Black President. It has been a persistent cause of friction inside the Beltway between members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and has created a circus of distraction by the sometimes embarrassingly personal attacks launched by Professor Cornel West and television host Tavis Smiley. President Obama did himself no favor when he spoke at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and lectured Black America in the shadow of the statue of the emancipation President.
Of course it is not as simple as simply blaming the President. There has been little noise beyond the Beltway on poverty, and it is why West and Smiley could be so clearly heard. Fighting poverty has been a policy desert, with advocates preferring the coziness of status that comes with an approximation to power over the power that comes from confronting the status quo. Despite the economic devastation across America, and particularly in cities, there has been a deafening silence in the Detroits, New Yorks, LAs and Newarks of the nation concerning the crush of poverty, despite well documented and detailed evidence. And when it comes to addressing racial disparities, so-called advocates have stuck their heads in the sand.
So, now we are left with a President approaching lame-duck status, burdened down by the ginormous challenge of health care reform, and facing the most polarized Congress since Jim Crow, throwing a last second Hail Mary pass on poverty. Perhaps the late game heroics of the Auburn football game has lit a fire under the President, but he does not have the blocking that Chris Davis had with no time left on the clock in the Iron Bowl.
While the President’s remarks yesterday was good news, my excitement is tempered because it’s a desperation play; an acknowledgment of yardage lost and lacking the boldness, scale and innovation necessary to seriously address our nation’s economic dysfunction. Say what you want about the War on Poverty in hindsight but give Lyndon Johnson credit for being the most unlikely of Presidents to demonstrate the courage to call America out on poverty. We forget that not even his adored predecessor, the assassinated John F. Kennedy, spoke with the boldness and compassion of the big southerner from Texas. The real opportunity of public service is to make change that will uplift those fallen by the wayside and benefit the nation as a whole by making true the mantra of “one nation” embedded in our national oath. Tragically, President Obama has likely missed his moment to exhibit Johnson-like courage and determination in addressing poverty.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.