The State of President Obama’s “Black Agenda”

Obama’s second State of the Union and his second term have finally revealed--better late than never--the work he will do for the black community.

In January President Obama delivered the second State of the Union address of his second term and much of it encompassed what could be described as a realization. Given that Congress acted on only five of the 24 proposals he presented during his 2013 State of the Union address, it appears as if the President is switching up his method of checking off agenda items and is vowing to take more independent action, when he can, to move proposals. The majority of the 60-plus minutes of the State of the Union were spent making declarations of plans to use his executive authority to accomplish what he could when Congress wouldn’t act.

“[W]hat I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” President Obama said about his plans for the remainder of his term. “Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I,” adding  “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He again pledged to bypass Congress if he felt it necessary.

“But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible,” he said.

It was a risk. And of course the threats were met with cantankerous replies and accusations that he was plotting to run a dictatorship, circumventing Federalism and rule of law.

The writing was on the wall through several budget battles, debt limit squabbles and scuffles over extending unemployment benefits that he would be well on the way to becoming a lame duck president if he didn’t figure out how to get things through a majority Republican House of Representatives that is reluctant to advance his proposed laws.

With a full term and no need to tread cautiously so as to alienate voters, the President is free to fully explore some topics and initiatives. For example, he has been more open and active in presenting campaigns that specifically target African Americans.

Before, taking on an aggressive agenda item that targeted only one race, he would surely draw the ire of some who may have accused him of governing to benefit his own people. It’s not as if the statistics wouldn’t and shouldn’t warrant special attention to a group that had higher unemployment rates than any other racial group throughout his presidency. The urban crime in America’s inner cities, particularly the President’s hometown Chicago, indeed deserves programming geared toward its eradication. But such bold moves would be greeted with contempt and suspicions and called pandering.  So out of an abundance of caution, it looks as if the first African-American president went a different route. He would instead insist that his policies helped all Americans and de facto blacks too. It was a trickle-down theory of sorts.

“The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community. Period. And that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again,” the president said in a 2009 interview with the Detroit Free Press and USA Today. “It’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are going to get out of this together.”

But many people aren’t satisfied with passive, subtle, incidental and accidental policies for their group when they know very well that it needs explcit attention. They want it spelled out and specific. And so now we have it, the Obama Administration’s “Black Agenda” is here.

It is outright, unapologetic, in-your-face, kicking down policy doors and most importantly targets the black community specifically.

A few years ago, the administration started announcing certain policies that it knew disproportionately impacted African American.

Targeted Policies Disproportionately Impacting African Americans

The Making Home Affordable program would end up aiming to help the substantial number of African-American home owners who were among the millions of other Americans who found themselves upside down on their mortgage, facing foreclosure and desperate for help. Research uncovered discrimination in the housing lending industry that kept black families from rehabilitating their loans.

A 2013 Mortgage lending report found that “Loan servicers foreclose on delinquent black or African-American borrowers more quickly than White or Hispanic borrowers. Additionally, White HAMP eligible borrowers are almost 50% more likely to receive a modification than African-American or Latino borrowers.”

The lending programs forcing the major institutions to negotiate and forgive some portions of loans were god sends, in particular to struggling minority home-owners.

Sympathetic Drug Policy

In 2011, the Department of Justice began announcing plans to adjust its drug sentencing policies so that people are sent to drug treatment facilities instead of receiving jail time. The Second Chance Act funds state, local, and tribal reentry courts, as well as family-centered programs, substance abuse treatment, employment, mentoring and other services improving transition from prison and jail to communities and reducing recidivism. That year the Justice Department announced plans to expand implementation of the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine, a problem that disproportionately impacts minorities. The new policy expanded the number of drug courts so more petty offenders get treatment and off the drugs which support their lives in the criminal justice system.

Then last summer, Attorney General Eric Holder indicated plans for the Justice Department to not charge low-level nonviolent drug offenders who have little to no ties to large-scale gangs or drug cartels. Men and women in this group, mainly minorities, had been jailed because of “draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” Holder noted.

African Americans are eight times more likely to face jail for petty drugs crimes than whites convicted of the same offence, according to a 2011 report from the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission. It noted that 19% of black defendants accused of minor drug-possession crimes in the state were sent to prison, compared to just 4% of white defendants.

“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder said. “However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”

Under the drug policy, Holder said defendants would be “charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”

“By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation — while making our expenditures smarter and more productive,” Holder said.

Broken Communities

In 2013, the Obama administration announced the Ladders of Opportunities program aimed to help 20 zip codes or communities dealing with record unemployment, infrastructure failures and other stressors through funding and programs that would encourage and support for parents and children, and convert low-income projects into mixed use ones so that business and residential communities intermingle as they do in the most successful city blocks in America.

Inequitable Schools and College Access

The Department of Education started to study predominantly black and Hispanic schools with an eye towards inequities in AP classes, expulsion and availability of quality trained teachers. U.S. Department of Education researchers looked at 85 percent of the nation’s public school students in some 72,000 schools in a widely publicized report released in March 2012, Politi-Fact noted. They found that although black students made up 18 percent of the nation’s public school population, they accounted for 35 percent of students suspended at least once and 39 percent of students expelled. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the findings highlighted the need for educators to address the disparities.

“The power of the data is not only in the numbers themselves, but in the impact it can have when married with the courage and the will to change. The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” said Duncan, who is white. “It is our collective duty to change that.”

First Lady Michelle Obama also announced a new plan that would deconstruct hurdles to minority student’s matriculation into college.

Civil Rights Associations

In early February, President Obama met with several civil rights leaders including Rev. Al Sharpton about raising the minimum wage, black unemployment, health care, voting rights and education. It was the latest in a series of meetings with black mayors and other elected officials.

Black Male Achievement and Success

President Obama has launched a private/public partnership called My Brother’s Keeper aimed at addressing the negative statistics plaguing boys of color.

After making the now-controversial remark empathizing with the parents of slain teen Trayvon Martin, he had met with young black boys at Hyde Park Academy last February when he noted that plenty of them had “issues” not unlike the issues he faced growing up:

“I had issues too when I was their age,” he told the audience. “I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me.”

The program is modeled after a $130 million Young Men’s Initiative in New York City funded by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and George Soros. At a cost of $43 million annually, the program connected young black and Latino men with educational and mentoring opportunities through over a dozen city agencies. Some of the money went to literacy and fatherhood programs, half funded by donations from Bloomberg Philanthropies and Soros to the Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the Open Society Foundation.

The efforts were credited with a 23% drop in school suspension and a 34% decline in school arrests, according to Linda Gibbs, who served as a deputy mayor under Bloomberg.

All of these efforts comprise what can be called President Obama’s Black Agenda.

Even though some have criticized him for waiting until the security of his second term to pursue an aggressive series of plans to specifically help African Americans overcome some of the negative stats that plague the group, the fact remains that it would have been challenging to do it in the first term without suffering under the political consequences of being labeled a president for “the blacks.” Further, it must be noted that for all the criticism of Obama waiting “so long” to take on the challenge, not George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or any of the previous 43 presidents before Obama were ever expected to do anything. This is true even though many of the problems that affect black communities today existed years ago under the administrations lead by white presidents. So, maybe it is better late than never in the case of our first black president and the work he is doing for the black community in his second term.

 

About the author, Jeneba Ghatt

Jeneba Ghatt is an attorney, columnist, speaker, blogger and political analyst. She owns a DC-area boutique tech and communications law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, where she has represented clients before the US Supreme Court, federal courts, the FCC, and the FTC. She has served as political analyst, columnist and Washington correspondent for various publications, including Politic365.com and the Washington Times Communities. Her work has appeared syndicated on The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Root and other sites. Visit her website, Jeneba Speaks and follow her on Twitter @jenebaspeaks.
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