It will be a short trek from the White House to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center tonight but it will be a trip that is fraught with anticipation and some disillusionment. President Barack Obama will travel to the convention center to attend tonight’s black-tie Phoenix Awards dinner that is the finale of the Annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the not-for-profit policy and research arm of the nation’s Black lawmakers. In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama strode triumphantly to the podium to accept the Phoenix Award months before his historic election to the presidency. He returns tonight as a lame-duck President whose tenure has been largely underwhelming in its impact upon the nation’s African-American community.
The President will address the Black members of Congress and the thousands of assembled celebrities and guests as he is engulfed in perpetual crisis. House Republicans, driven by the Tea Party, are holding up a resolution to the raising of the debt ceiling over a nonsensical and impractical, and purely symbolic, effort to “defund” the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as “Obamacare.” President Obama also finds his leadership under attack for his handling of the Syrian crisis and the deal that has been cut with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the disposition of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Closer to home gun violence is laying waste to hundreds of innocent lives, including children. The recent mass killings at the U.S. Navy Yards calls attention again to the vulnerability of American citizens to gun violence and the manner in which “gun rights” have superseded human rights. On the heels of the Navy Yard massacre was the shooting of 13 people in a Chicago park in what has become a daily ritual of gun violence in the Windy City and places like Newark, New Jersey where bloodshed has become commonplace. The President’s muted response to gun violence was even more pronounced when he suggested that it was not ritualistic. While gun violence, and in particular mass shootings, is across racial lines, in its impact it has taken a significantly harsher toll in urban communities, and on the Black and Latino communities, where it has been buttressed by the drug trade, gang activity, joblessness and the lack of educational opportunity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly Employment Situation Summary for August reported the nation’s unemployment rate was 7.3 percent and for African-Americans it was 13 percent. The unemployment rate for Black women was 10.6 percent while Black men fared worse among all groups at 13.5 percent. New Census data released last week indicated poverty is on the upswing in New York City and income inequality has widened in the nation’s largest city. Despite the persistence of poverty, the word “poverty” is seldom uttered by a President who has focused his attention on the middle class. A symbol of the Great Migration and Black entrepreneurship, Detroit, is in the throes of bankruptcy as residents in the “Motor City” are confronted by a lack of municipal services, crumbling housing stock, poor schools and crime. And as a city that represents an era of American manufacturing might fights for its life, there has been no indication from the President of a federal plan to aid the city and other ailing cities. There is little for Blacks or the poor to take comfort in their present circumstance.
Equally problematic for this President is the decision by the U.S. Department of Education to change the eligibility for the Parent PLUS loan program for parents of college students. The tightening of credit requirements has devastated the student population at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and impacted campus enrollments. With limited federal grant opportunities to fund a college education, and the increasing difficulty in accessing federal student loans, many Black families are left with few options to finance the college education of children. With some Black colleges teetering and on the verge of closing, the new Parent PLUS loan restrictions are introducing a new round of stress that brings further pressure upon these schools. When combined with attacks on affirmative action and the limiting of admissions to traditionally white institutions, a generation of academically eligible African-American students might be denied a college education simply on the basis of affordability.
As his second term wades into lame duck territory, President Obama is also tested by a hostile conservative bloc on the United States Supreme Court that has rolled back voting rights, affirmative action and limited plaintiffs’ ability to bring retaliation claims in employment discrimination cases. The difficulty of securing Senate confirmation aside, complicating matters on the federal courts front is the fact the White House has been slow in making appointments to the judiciary. With decades of civil rights law now in play in the federal courts, and a determinately difficult GOP House majority, the White House has done little to assure the President’s core constituency – African-Americans – it is prepared to use every facet of executive power to be a counterweight to the onslaught on civil rights.
Underlying the pleasantries of tonight’s celebratory event will be a tension that has been brewing privately for some time between some factions of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the President. While many members of the CBC consciously and cautiously avoid any public criticism of President Obama in acknowledgment of the complexities of race, power and history, many are disappointed over the manner in which the Obama White House seemingly avoids addressing racial disparities unless in moments of absolute crisis, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin. The President did himself no favors with his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington in August. His remarks were devoid of any specific recommendations to address the myriad of crisis plaguing the Black community and were generally focused on condemning the behavior of African-Americans, a tact that has become a pattern for this President.
What should be a moment of triumph and celebration for a legislative caucus that has its origins in the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, and has grown as a considerable influence in the Democratic Party, will be a muted recognition of unfulfilled hopes and pleas for some noticeable improvement in the general welfare of African-Americans before President Obama leaves office.