The state of black America under Obama


President Obama’s historic election in 2008 remains fresh in the memory of Americans and most citizens around the world. But on November 6 it will be decided whether the first US Black president will win a second term.

A crucial element of Obama’s success was his ability to capture 95% of the African American vote - the highest share any candidate had ever gained from this community. But whether such support can be matched in two weeks time may depend on the ‘black experience’ under his presidency.

Obama ran on the ticket of hope and the promise of a new America. Progressives and African Americans alike believed that he would forge radical social change and make US society more equal. So what difference has the election of the first black president made to African American lives and has he been able to live up to their expectations?

First, whatever grievances African Americans may have, all agree that Obama’s election has boosted the self-esteem of black people and Africans around the world. It’s said that his election victory smashed the ‘racial glass ceiling’ and was the fruition of a centuries long struggle for civil rights.

According to the African American cultural critic and writer, Toure, while Obama’s victory did not transform America into a post-racial utopia it changed the soul of the nation. He says:

To see a brilliant black alpha male be embraced as leader at a very difficult time of frightening recession and seemingly endless war made many black Americans feel fully at home for the first time and made many reconsider what it means to be black.

Obama’s victory has also lifted the ambitions of young African Americans. The NAACP has noted that university applications from black people have increased and that some now aspire to the presidency.

In addition for African Americans raised by single mothers, the Obamas have provided an example of the kind of family many would like to have. They continue to perform their parenting responsibilities to the highest of standards despite the associated pressures that come with being the first couple.

But analysts on the left and the right have noted that under Obama’s presidency there has been no overall progress on race equality and that in some cases it may be getting worse.

It is acknowledged that the president took office during a time of deep global economic recession and was tasked with the job of picking up the pieces left behind by the administration of former president, George W Bush.

When the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009, 750, 000 jobs were being lost each month and unemployment was running at 8.2%. During his term in office Obama is widely credited for halting further economic decline and reducing unemployment to 7.8%.

He has introduced health care reforms and voting legislation that will benefit not only black Americans, but all Americans and ended discrimination in mortgage lending. Yet despite reductions in national unemployment, at 14.1%, the unemployment rate among African Americans is nearly double that of white Americans.

Furthermore, gains made by the Black middle class are said to be in decline. Recent research by the National Urban League Civil Rights Group showed that from 2009-2012 median annual household income for black Americans fell by 11.1% compared with a drop of 5.2% for white Americans and 4.1% for Hispanics. However it is important to note that this downward trend had taken effect before Obama was elected.

According to a Bloomberg article published in September this year, the implosion of the American housing market is central to understanding the financial plight of black Americans. It noted that during the crisis African Americans lost more ground than white Americans because property ownership accounted for 60% of Black wealth. The NAACP even went as far to say that

we may have lost more property than we did in slavery.

The United States continues to have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Half of the 2.3 million people languishing in American jails are black. Recent research suggests that if imprisonment rates continue at this pace then 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. The situation has led some to describe the system as the new Jim Crow.

Former Princeston University professor and activist, Cornel West, argues that Obama has not done enough to tackle violence and poverty in African American communities. He denounces the president’s lack of outreach to the African American community as “nothing but a ploy”.

On the other hand, Harvard Law professor, Charles Ogletree, who advised the first couple as students, contends that the president

has not at all stayed away from his race.

Whichever observation is closest to the truth, it is certain that African Americans are still waiting for Obama to deliver results. Most are clear however that they would be much worse off under the Republicans. Polls reveal that only 0% - 2% of African Americans would vote for Governor Mitt Romney. On the other hand it is suggested that Obama is once again set to secure over 90% of the African American vote.

So what can black Britons learn from this experience?

Ethnic minorities are currently under-represented in government and most of Britain’s democratic institutions. In order to influence the political process this imbalance must be redressed. There are currently 27 MPs in parliament from ethnic minority backgrounds, out of 650 MPs equals roughly just 4%. This compared with the fact that ethnic minorities make up 10% of Britain’s population. And unlike in the US, no unified lobby in the House of Commons exists that gives ethnic minorities voices a platform in national debates.

Experts have also noted that Britain has a much smaller ethnic minority population and thus produces a shallower pool of politicians. Such factors they argue work against black representation.

But other factors also come into play such as the lack of solidarity among black communities and disengagement from the political process, which is a trend that is present in the wider population.

Obama is viewed as the product of the struggle for civil rights. In contrast, in Britain such a movement has never existed and it is unlikely that an ethnic minority will become prime minister soon.

But there is still hope. Today grassroots movements are springing up all over the world driven by the desire for democracy and equal rights. For example, Occupy London was formed to fight against social injustice and economic inequality in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. In such forums which unite people from all walks of life, it is important too that there is a diversity of views. The black community should take note and support Occupy London as anti-racism and race equality must feature on any progressive agenda that seeks to hold power to account.

And similar to the experience of African Americans, the demands of British black people revolve around education, housing and equal opportunity in employment and to set up businesses. In addition an end to a criminal justice system that systematically discriminates on the grounds of race is a pressing priority. Black communities must emphasise that it is only when these objectives are achieved that multicultural Britain will become a truly just and equal society.

On Wednesday 31st October Centreprise Bookstores in London will be hosting a debate on the state of Black America in 2012. The event will be chaired by Emanuel Amevor with Rita Gayle, author of ‘Friend across the Water: a personal journey inside Black America.

It will take place at 136 Kingsland High Street, London E8 2NS, 7.00pm-8.30pm. For more information, call 0207 254 9632

Chizom Ekeh

Archived Comments

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From an African American

From an African American perspective it is easy to see why some might think that Obama has achieved little or even sold out, but the dreadful economic crisis he inheritaed from Bush and also the defiant opposition meant that it his leadership was thwarted from the start. I hope he wins again and this time he will really flex his political muscles.

Good Luck Mr. President.

I wish Barack Obama the very best of luck. If the woeful George Bush can win a second term in office, anything is possible at today's election. The best of luck Mr. President.