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African-American leaders and intellectuals express dissatisfaction with President Obama

Posted By Caroline May On 9:19 PM 08/24/2010 In Blog - Caroline May | 72 Comments

With President Barack Obama’s approval ratings dipping below 50%, members of his strongest voting bloc have also started to voice displeasure with the way he has chosen to govern.

Since Obama has taken office African Americans have faced a number of disproportionate “highs,” few of them good, such as an exceptionally high unemployment rate, a high foreclosure rate, and a high number of African-American political figures deprived of the president’s support or dismissed from his administration (such as former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, South Carolina Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alvin Greene, former green energy czar Van Jones, Democratic Illinois Sen. Roland Burris, Democratic New York Gov. David Patterson, would-be Democratic New York Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., and Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel of New York, Maxine Waters of California and Kendrick Meek of Florida).

Dr. Cornel West, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, is one African-American leader who has been far from pleased with Obama’s neglect of African-American issues. West told The Daily Caller that he has been extremely frustrated with the president’s relative disinterest in civil rights issues.

“He can take the black base for granted because he assumes we have nowhere else to go,” West said. “But we just won’t put up with it. He has got to respect us.”

West is not the only black leader who feels this way. Behind the scenes, West says, many African-American leaders are not happy with Obama’s failure to address issues important to the black community, especially considering the support the community gave the president during the 2008 election. But, according to West, many of those dissatisfied leaders are hesitant to step forward.

“There hasn’t been a lot of talk about it because I think most black spokespeople, at the moment, are scared of the Obama machine,” West said. “A lot of us are trying to put the pressure on him without aiding and abetting the right wing.”

Dr. Wilmer Leon, radio-talk show host and expert on black politics, said that while Obama has actively been distancing himself from the African-American community, few know the best way to push him in the right direction.

“On the one hand many in the community are very frustrated with the president and want him to say more and do more and stop throwing people under the bus,” Leon told TheDC. “But many in the community don’t quite know how to approach him because of the historic nature of his presidency and they don’t want to do the brother in.”

Shelby Steele, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has written extensively about the fine line the president had to walk in order to be elected. His book, “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win,” laid out the concessions Obama had to make in order to be elected. According to Steele, Obama is a “bargainer,” who appeals to white sensibilities by eschewing the presumption of racism. This would be in contrast to a “challenger,” or an individual who presumes his white counterpart is racist.
“I think that is why he is president of the United States, because he is a superb bargainer on this racial level. If he starts to pay any kind of special attention to black problems then he starts to look like what I call a ‘challenger,’ somebody who has a chip on his shoulder who has a hidden agenda,” Steele told TheDC. “He cannot politically afford to pay special attention to black Americans. So if he runs into any black Americans who seem to have any coloring of militancy, he runs for his life. He cannot be associated with those people — Reverend Wright almost did him in. So he throws them under the bus very quickly.”

Leon echoed Steele’s contention, saying that the president’s failure to connect with the African-American community is largely political in nature. “The president has done everything in his power not to be tagged as an African-American representative. For to be tagged as such would force him into discussions and contribute to stereotypes that make it very difficult, if not impossible, to be elected. So he was very successful as a candidate to walk that fine line and stay out of the racial dialogue.”

Dr. Pearl Ford, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, sees Obama’s relationship with the African-American community as a complex, not easily explained with a quick answer. Her contention is that during the election Obama garnered African-American support by not necessarily appealing directly to the community, but by focusing on larger issues in which they are interested. “He was able to tap into the community’s sense of camaraderie, sense of racial identity and pride to garner support. There were not any major overtures. A lot of the overtures were general like education in general and health care in general,” she said.

Steele pointed out that Obama does not owe the black community as much as they believe he does due to the fact that whites were the ones who elected him — specifically by throwing their support to him during the Iowa caucus. Initially, the African-American community was significantly supporting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

“Once blacks began to see that whites were with Obama they didn’t want to be left standing at the station so they jumped on board,” he said. “They were not his base anyway. So he is not confused about that. That said, blacks will continue to vote for him. They vote for every Democratic candidate at a rate of 90% so Obama can absolutely take them for granted and will.”

According to Ford, however, Obama owes a great deal to African-American women, who she believes helped him to secure his victory in a couple key battle-ground states. “What we do know about the turnout is a significant number of African-American women vote and that is extremely significant in critical states like North Carolina and Ohio. So, even though he won the white vote, there was an extreme increase in African-American turnout that allowed him to win those battleground states. It would be very dangerous to ignore that.”
Both West and Leon have expressed anger at the president’s air of superiority and arrogance toward the black community.

“Obama has been at times very condescending to the black community,” Leon said. “And the problem is this, don’t run from us and then tomorrow think that you can come in and preach to us. In the vernacular, you are either down or you’re not! You’re either with us or you’re not.”

Ford said that while President Obama has made performed several important symbolic acts for the African-American community — such as staying in the historically black section of Martha’s Vineyard and laying a wreath on the African American Civil War Memorial — he has failed to deal with the substantive issues she says the community wants addressed.

“He has a substantive role, and he also has a symbolic role. He’s addressed the symbolic issues, but with the substantive issues — that’s where he has failed.”

Leon said that it is incumbent upon the African-American community to try to get Obama to move in their direction. If the community fails to do this, he said,  it will be more difficult to get presidential support in the future for civil rights initiatives.

“My take on that is, you have to treat him the same way you would treat any other president,” Leon explained. “Especially since he is not giving you any reason to treat him otherwise. And it is going to be very difficult, whether it is 2012 and he is not reelected or it is 2016 and we’re dealing with a new president — who most likely will not be African American — it is going to be very difficult to hold that new president to a different standard.”

“It’s my hope that he becomes more aggressive and addresses these issues,” Ford concluded. “I’m not willing to say he’s not willing to do it, but I think it’s a difficult global climate for him to do so, but I think he’s gonna have to do so and let the chips fall.”

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