It’s been a year now since Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, thus becoming the first African American elected to this office. This colossal achievement will be talked about, debated and discussed in the coming weeks as pundits, reporters and analyst assess the president’s first year in office.
A question that I would like the African American community to consider is this: Have we seen, or do we expect to see, a change in black life under the Obama administration?
My immediate answer is no.
During the campaign, Obama went out of his way to avoid the issue of race, and addressed it only when the controversial sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced. In response, Obama delivered his race speech in February 2008, which Adolph Reed, a noted political scientists, characterized as the “Philadelphia Compromise,” to assure white people that Obama was not like other black leaders who focused on racism and discrimination in America.
This speech quickly distinguished Obama as a post racial black leader whose concerns were not limited to the African American community but to the entire American electorate.
Agreeing with this line of logic, much of black America seemed to go along with Obama and supported him wholeheartedly while demanding or requesting little from him politically. One of the more shameful things that I have witnessed is some black people contending that Obama owes nothing to black America and that we should look to ourselves for assistance (a message that Obama continues to preach to African and African Americans).
Interesting enough, other lobby/interest groups reject this approach and petition — and sometimes demand unapologetically — attention to their causes. Yet somehow we are the only ones arguing for personal responsibility.
Sadly, Obama is not the first or only black elected official who ignored or did nothing to improve the lives of black Americans. Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have seen numerous black mayors, governors, state and national congressional representatives do the same thing. What is even more interesting is that when we look at the evolution of African American elected leadership and its correlation to black advancement (or decline), there is troubling evidence to suggests that the more black folks are elected the worst off the black community fares.
Over the past 30 years we have seen major educational problems in black children regarding dropout and graduation rates. Additionally, we have seen a tenfold increase of black men/women in prison and jails, as well as discriminatory sentencing practices that have disproportionately impacted our community. We have seen an increase in health disparities in the areas of HIV, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Finally, we have seen the black community hit hard by the housing crises and unemployment, which hovers around 20 percent for African Americans.
All of these problems existed simultaneously as black elected officials were in power at local, state and national levels.
Therefore, as we reflect on Obama’s election victory a year ago, I have one question for black America: If the quality of black life continues to decrease as it has over the past 30 years, how will black America be able to reconcile this occurrence under the tenure of a black president?
I am not suggesting that Obama focus only on black America’s problems, but I would hope that by the end of his tenure he is able to address at least one issue that plagues African Americans.
Is this an unreasonable request?
The African American freedom struggle was fought by our elders and ancestors for collective freedom, not the freedom of some to advance their career and status while the rest of the race suffered. However, as a scholar-activist, I am rational enough to know that it is up to us to challenge brother Obama to make sure he addresses the various problems in our community.
At the end of his tenure, what will we have to celebrate — the fact that we had a black president or the fact that this black president did something to improve the quality of life in the black community?
Personally, I believe that we will have to be the ones to make our destiny by demanding and creating change in our community, because recent history has shown that most black elected officials are more concern about winning than losing their race.
Joseph L. Jones, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Johnson C. Smith University.