MAKING HER POINT–Presidential Adviser Valerie Jarrett makes point as (Left to right) Cecelia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Danielle Grey, Cabinet Secretary, listens. (Photo by George E. Curry/NNPA)
by George E. Curry
For New Pittsburgh Courier
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – President Obama has launched initiatives and backed legislation that have significantly helped African-Americans throughout his time in office even though there is a perception in some quarters that the nation’s first Black president hasn’t done as much for African-Americans as he has for Latinos, gays and lesbians, and other groups, according to White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
In a meeting with six African-American journalists last Thursday, Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, said: “If you look at the president’s record in the first four years, if you look at his major domestic policy accomplishments, they disproportionately do benefit the African-American community.”
She explained, “If you look at the Affordable Care Act – roughly 9 million African Americans uninsured will have health insurance today – if you look at the president’s Recovery Act and subsequent budgets … If you went through the menu of tax incentives and unemployment that disproportionately benefit the African-American community, time and time again – I think unemployment insurance has been extended like nine times –every single time we had to fight the Republicans to get that done.”
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have criticized the administration for avoiding direct references to Blacks in public forums.
At a CBC jobs tour stop in Miami last August, for example, Don Graves, executive director of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, said “certain communities have been hit harder than other communities.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) interrupted: “Let me hear you say ‘Black.’” As the audience cheered, Graves said, “Black, African American, Latino, these communities have been hard hit.”
Bishop Victor T. Curry, head of New Birth Baptist Church in Miami and president of the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP, said at that meeting, “We don’t want to come across as being critical of the president. But if the president can count on 90 percent of the African American vote, then the African American community should expect something from the man who’s getting 90 percent of their support.”
Asked why President Obama rarely uses the term “Black” when discussing public policy, Jarrett replied, “We aren’t afraid of saying it’s going to help the Black community.”
But not everyone agrees.
According to research compiled by Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, President Obama has paid less attention to race – as measured by executive orders issued and references to race in public speeches – than every Democratic president since 1961.
That means he has paid less attention to race than John F. Kennedy, a liberal former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and three White Southerners who grew up under segregation – Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University said, “This president runs from race like a Black man runs from a cop.”
Jarrett acknowledges that President Obama doesn’t often refer to race. But she says it’s more a matter of tactics than substance.
“We want everybody in the United States to feel this vested interest in everyone’s success,” she said. “The president doesn’t talk in ways that are divisive; he talks in ways that are inclusive.”
She explained, “The first speech that he gave in 2004 [to the Democratic National Convention in Boston], he talked about there’s a poor kid in Southern Illinois who’s not doing well, that’s the same as my kid not doing well. And the point is, again: Use language that’s going to make people understand why it’s in their self-interest for everybody’s child to do well, regardless of race, regardless of zip code and that was the real spirit of the inaugural address, it was the spirit of his 2004 speech.
“That’s who he is. And that’s the language he uses because he’s trying to get people all feeling vested together and not separate each other by race, religion or zip code or any other [category].”
Like most politicians, especially when in the campaign mode, President Obama has made frequent overtures to the middle class while saying little, if anything, about poor people.
According to Fredrick C. Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, “…as president, Mr. Obama has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor.”
President Obama sent a clear signal in his State of the Union speech that he will continue to advocate on behalf of both the middle class and the poor.
He said, “America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”
Although he used the word “poor” only one time in the speech – while saying “middle class” six times – he left no doubt that will be a major emphasis of his second term. He was more specific in a speech he gave in Chicago on Friday.
“I want to focus on here in Chicago and across the country — is my intention to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit communities in America to get them back in the game — get them back in the game,” the president said.
Getting those 20 communities back into the game, Obama said, will require:
Working with local officials to improve public safety, education and housing.
Expanding job growth by giving tax breaks to business owners who invest and hire in those neighborhoods.
Targeting neighborhoods struggling to deal with violent crime and
Replacing dilapidated public housing developments newer homes for low- and moderate-income families.
Communities will have to compete for one of the 20 special grants and that process alone is expected to improve life in many communities of color.
Jarrett said the president and first lady are aware of how they are perceived by the public.
“I think he takes his role as mentor very seriously and he leads by example,” she said. “He goes home for dinner every night. He’s a present and involved father. I hear stories all the time from women who say, ‘I want you to grow up and be like the president.’ I want you to be like the first lady.’ They are terrific role models for the African-American community.”
Jarrett observed, “Children who are growing up today are going to think it’s perfectly no
rmal to have a president who’s African-American – White children, Latino children, Black children, Asian children,” she said. “Eight years of a Black president is going to be a big chunk of their childhood and I think that’s good for the country, not just for Black children.”
George Curry is NNPA Editor & Chief.