President Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual meeting this past weekend shouldn’t have even been news. As a whole, it was unremarkable. He offered up his now-standard talking points for his belated jobs bill—Republicans are hypocrites on taxes, we’ve gotta have shared sacrifice, pass this dead-on-arrival bill now, and so on. He peppered it with his usual code-switching for black audiences, prominently dropping his g’s and letting his old campaign-trail swagger shine. But all in all, it was nothing special—except for two things that tell us a great deal about this president and his relationship to our community.
The first thing is a bit of lecturing Obama couldn’t resist tacking onto the end of his address. “Take off your bedroom slippers,” he bizarrely ordered, “put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.” That remark transformed the speech from a weekend news bite into a week-long discussion about the president’s relationship to a community that remains his strongest supporter.
The remark was largely understood as a jab at Rep. Maxine Waters and others in the Black Caucus who have grumbled recently that the White House is ignoring the growing gap between black unemployment and that of the rest of the country. Waters responded by calling the president’s comment “curious” and suggesting he “got off script and got a little bit beside himself.” Tavis Smiley, another routine Obama critic, was more blunt. In a conversation with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee after the speech, Smiley argued the president would never say such things to other allied communities that have complained far more vocally about the White House’s policies on gay rights, Israel or immigration.
But President Obama has always enjoyed lecturing black people. Absent his much discussed campaign speech on Jeremiah Wright and his fumbling “beer summit,” the only time he’s been willing to touch race has been to show up at black events and tell us to take more responsibility for ourselves—as fathers, as home owners and now as laggard troops in his war for reelection. The president has also long been dismissive of black criticism, and maintained that posture during a BET interview Monday night, in which he shrugged off the fact that “a handful of African American leaders” have complaints. “They were critical when I was running for president. There’s always going to be someone who is critical of the president of the United States,” he said. “That’s my job.”
Many would define his job differently, but more on that later. The president’s reaction to black criticism mirrors the way he responds to criticism from the left overall: he invites conversation about it, then minimizes his base as irrelevant. That’s in keeping with his image of himself as a vessel for American reconciliation, rather than the nation’s chief executive. If people who are supposed to like him are mad, he must be on the right path, he must be offering just the sort of split-the-difference leadership that a fractured nation needs to heal, right? Waters’ point, however, is that black America is less in need of healing than it is of jobs and homes and food security.
Which is the second thing about Obama’s CBC speech that was unique—he actually publicly acknowledged the fact that this recession hasn’t been the same for all Americans. From jobs to poverty to hunger, the hard numbers reveal that black neighborhoods all over the country are living in a depression. Even among recent college graduates, black unemployment is twice that of their white peers. The racial wealth gap has exploded to the point that the median white family has 44.5 times more wealth than the median black family. More stark is the absolute measure: the median black family held $2,200 in wealth as of 2009, a number that has surely plummeted further as the foreclosure and jobs crises have worsened in the past two years—under Obama’s watch. You can’t profess to care about the middle class and not consider this disparity a critical threat to the nation’s future.
We’ve pointed out these trends many times, but I’m thrilled to finally be able to quote the president himself on them:
“The unemployment rate for black folks went up to nearly 17 percent—the highest it’s been in almost three decades. Forty percent, almost, of African-American children are living in poverty; fewer than half convinced that they can achieve Dr. King’s dream. You’ve got to be a little crazy to have faith during such hard times. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s frustrating. And I ran for president, and the members of the CBC ran for Congress, to help more Americans reach that dream.”
Not for nothing, if Obama had stopped there the CBC speech would today be a rallying point for his rapidly shrinking approval rating among black voters; he’s fallen from 83 percent to 58 percent of black voters being “strongly favorable” in the past five months, according to the Washington Post’s polling. But the president couldn’t stop there, he had to go on to suggest that black folks are themselves responsible for this pain, because we’re so busy sitting around in our bedroom slippers and complaining rather than fighting. We’re probably letting our kids watch too much TV while we’re at it. And eating fatty foods.
The reality, of course, is that some black people are complaining precisely because the president has not yet done the work that he’s happy lecture everyone else about doing. Three years after millions of black, young and working people of all colors did the impossible by putting him in office, he has finally turned his attention from Wall Street’s well-being and the quest for bipartisan harmony to picking a fight on jobs. He’s now found the pluck, he says, to do battle with Republicans over taxes to pay for a jobs bill. Time will tell if he’s just selling woof tickets. Either way, let’s hope the rising chorus of black criticism keeps building—and demanding the same accountability from the president that he is so fond of demanding from us.