Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Blacks still seem to have Obama’s back, but does he have theirs?
“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,” he told the Detroit Free Press and USA Today in 2009. “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 all going to get out of this together.”
Never mind that Obama dealt generously with some particular segments of the United States, bailing out the bankers and extending the Bush tax breaks to millionaires.
Given Obama’s record, you might think that there might be more political space for blacks to criticize the President. Not so. Take it from me. If you dare to tell it like it is, you instantly and unsparingly get bashed and called a “hater.”
I go on a lot of talk radio programs geared toward a black audience, and whenever I point out Obama’s flaws, this is what I get:
“We ought not to air our dirty laundry in public.”
“We need to show a united front.”
“Obama can’t do everything. He isn’t Superman.”
“Obama is cleaning up the mess Bush left.”
“He got health care passed.”
“The Republicans won’t give him a break.”
“The attack by the ‘birthers’ is an attack on black legitimacy, so we must defend him.”
“He’s not the president of black America; he’s the President of the United States of America.”
“His family sure looks good. He and Michelle are good role models for our kids.”
“It’s our fault the Obama Presidency hasn’t kept its commitments. We need to ‘make him do it.’ ”
“Shut up and sit down and support the President, or there will be nothing he can do anyway.”
Morning syndicated radio show host Tom Joyner told his audience that blacks who criticize the President are “haters” and need to be quiet because Obama doesn’t need the black vote to be split. Joyner asked, “What would it be like without a black man in office? . . . If you don’t support him it will be much worse.”
In the face of what can only be described as a depression in the black community, African Americans are still cutting Obama a lot of slack. As a satellite radio personality quipped to me: “There’s a greater likelihood that Michelle would leave Barack before some of his supporters!”
The longer he is in office, the less he seems to care about the African American community. The day after losing control of the House last November, Obama wasted no time agreeing with the tea party’s rallying cry that he had lost contact with the American people. And he bowed to the corporate power structure.
“I’ve got to take responsibility in terms of making sure that I make clear to the business community, as well as to the country, that the most important thing we can do is to boost and encourage our business sector,” he said, as if the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program money he signed off on to the bankers wasn’t enough.
Soon he struck a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts to the top 2 percent for two more years—directly breaking his campaign promise. And he submitted a budget containing $4 trillion in budget cuts over twelve years, with these cuts targeting “non-defense discretionary spending,” including programs that help the working poor and the needy heat their homes, expand access to graduate-level education, put kids in Head Start, and provide summer jobs for youth, career development, after-school programs, child care, GED programs, affordable housing, homelessness prevention, housing court advocacy, food pantries, and community service block grants.
“Rebuilding our economy on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans is something that I simply cannot accept,” said Representative Emanuel Cleaver, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Obama’s actions are not those of a man who wants to help out the black community. He can pretend that he does, as when he says, “I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.” But if he really cared deeply about them, he would have expanded them, not cut them.
Things don’t look so hopeful in black circles. And it’s not so much Obama’s fault. It could be the “schizophrenic” conflict of African American participation in U.S. politics.
The dilemma of black politics is whether it is about changing the system or running it. Is it about ending the empire and elitism or running the empire and somehow becoming part of the elite? And what will people sacrifice for the latter?
This is an excerpt of Kevin Alexander Gray's cover story for the August issue. To read the story in its entirety and to read the whole August issue, simply subscribe right now for $14.97. That's 75% off the newsstand price. Just click here.