09.24.12

Why Don’t Black Leaders Demand More of the President?

The 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus call themselves the conscience of the Congress. But when it comes to forcing Obama’s hand, they seem missing in action, writes Paul Butler.

Black members of Congress might ask themselves why, as they concluded their annual conference over the weekend, Barack Obama hasn’t done more for African-Americans. They bear some of the blame.

Last week Rep. Emanuel Cleaver admitted that African-American members of Congress hold Obama to a lower standard because the President is black. Pointing to the historic level of African-American unemployment, Cleaver said, “If we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House.” If, for example, Hillary Clinton sat in the Oval Office, Cleaver would tell her, “My sister, I love you, but this has got to go.”

But Obama gets a pass. Cleaver, who is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, “The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in way we wouldn’t to someone white.”

This is black solidarity at its most self-defeating. It’s why, as the President hands out goodies to other core groups in the Democratic base, African-Americans get squat. On the campaign trial, Obama delivered to Latinos his own version of The DREAM Act, gays received their long-sought presidential endorsement of same-sex marriage, and union workers get a job-protection intervention directed at China.

African-Americans, on the other hand, are like Charlie Brown on Halloween. While everyone else gets candy, they get a rock. Obama’s most emphatic statement on black unemployment was back in 2009, when he said, “I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m president of the entire United States.”

Of course he is. Still, under Obama’s watch, black unemployment has gone from bad to worse. It was 12 percent when Obama took office, and now it’s 14 percent. Yes, the problem cuts across all races, but as the saying goes, when there’s a recession in white America, there’s a depression in black America.

The 43 members of the Black Caucus call themselves the conscience of the Congress.  But when it comes to forcing Obama’s hand, they seem missing in action. As Cleaver put it, the caucus “is always hesitant to criticize the president.”

Here African-Americans could learn a lesson from the gay community. Early in his administration, Obama wasn’t giving them much love either. He invited prominent evangelical minister Rick Warren, a leading critic of gay marriage, to speak at his inauguration. He didn’t appoint any openly gay people to his cabinet, and his spokesperson suggested that ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” might take a few years. The Justice Department even filed a brief in a gay-marriage case equating homosexuality with adultery.

So the gay community got fired up. Leaders like Rep. Barney Frank forcefully criticized the president, and prominent fundraisers threaten to withhold campaign contributions. Activists took it even further. They interrupted Obama’s speeches to complain he was not moving fast enough.

All of this forced the president to do the right thing on these issues, and sooner than he probably wanted to. He ended discrimination against gays in the military, and “evolved” on same-sex marriage. The result? Obama is now considered the most gay-friendly president in U.S. history.

Pointing to the historic level of African-American unemployment, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said, “If we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House.”

There are two lessons for blacks here, and other groups who feel taken for granted by the administration. First, leadership has to lead. From day one, the gay establishment did not cut Obama any slack. In contrast, many African-American leaders, from the Black Caucus on down, seem asleep at the wheel.

Second, the grassroots has to be demanding. Racial justice is never going to be the president’s priority unless people of color get impatient. There is always going to be something—unrest abroad, a natural disaster, a campaign—that will legitimately demand the president’s attention. The gay community didn’t say, “Never mind, we’ll wait our turn,” and neither should African-Americans.

No recent Democratic presidential candidate, including Bill Clinton, has received a majority of the white vote. President Obama needs the same huge turnout of African-Americans that he got in 2008 if he is to win reelection.

But this election there is an enthusiasm gap among African-Americans. Are they better off than they were four years ago? Given the drop in employment, many would have to answer “no.” According to the polls, Gov. Romney has very little black support, but Democrats are increasingly concerned that many blacks simply won’t vote.

This would be a great time for real leaders to step up, and start demanding action from the President in exchange for getting out the crucial African-American vote.  Sadly, as Rep. Cleaver’s remarks make clear, those leaders are not to be found in the Congressional Black Caucus.