Is African-American community disappointed with Obama?

AFP | By, Washington
Aug 23, 2013 11:24 AM IST

History will remember Barack Obama as America's first black president, but he has taken pains to ensure that race is an undertone, not a dominant theme of his White House years.

History will remember Barack Obama as America's first black president, but he has taken pains to ensure that race is an undertone, not a dominant theme of his White House years.

On only a few occasions since taking office has Obama stepped up and addressed his nation's scarred racial past and sometimes uneasy present.

In his most direct intervention, just weeks ago, he gave an unusually sweeping discourse on race after a trial into the killing of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Obama will have no choice but to take on the topic when he stands on the same Lincoln Memorial steps next Wednesday where 50 years ago, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

Obama's historic election victory in 2008 dispelled the still widely prevalent idea that America was not yet ready to elect its first black president.

This son of a Kenyan father and white African mother went some way to fulfilling King's dream of equality, taking office a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, and 50 years after the end of segregation in the American Deep South.

But though Obama believes racial discord is ebbing, his own story alone does not mean all the wounds are healed.

"Things are getting better," Obama said in July.

"It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean racism is eliminated."

In some ways, it has been easy to forget the historic nature of Obama's presidency, as the White House downplayed it, keen to position him as president of all Americans.

And the gales of economic crisis howling when Obama took office soon grabbed more attention than the president's racial heritage.

But race has been an ever present, if muffled, theme.

It was hinted at in some political attacks on Obama by some radical critics.

The president himself often compared his change crusade to King's belief that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Obama's strategy was shrewd, according to Kareem Crayton, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.

"It's a rational decision, because most people in this country who are voters are not minorities.

"In order to win, a candidate needs to reach out to both non-white and white voters alike," he said.

But Crayton said that though America was now used to a black First Family, Obama's reticence on race is telling.

"It highlights how intractable this issue of race is in political circles."

An early sign of that came when Obama criticized as stupid the arrest of a black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home.

Obama smoothed over the issue with a "beer summit" at the White House with the professor and the arresting officer, after his comments caused a furor.

That incident was an anomaly. In fact, it could be argued that the president has addressed race only when it has been politically unavoidable.

Only when his 2008 campaign was in peril over the incendiary remarks of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright did Obama speak out.

When he did, he delivered the most startlingly direct discourse on race in modern America by a major politician since King gave voice to his dream.

"Working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds," he said.

Obama faced a political imperative on race again following the acquittal of Florida man George Zimmerman of the murder of Martin, a black teenager gunned down in February 2012.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said, voicing anguish felt in the black community over what many see as racial profiling of many young African American men.

It is indisputable that some in the African American community have been disappointed with Obama's presidency.

Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California, noted the enormous disparity of incarceration rates and unemployment between black and white Americans.

"There was so much hope that there would be change during the administration in some of the issues affecting the black community, and sadly that hasn't been the case," he said.

The White House responds to such criticism by pointing out that the president has made tackling unemployment -- which disproportionately impacts African Americans -- as the centerpiece of his presidency.

Carol Swain, of Vanderbilt University law school, said that while Obama had played an important symbolic role and promoted diversity in his cabinet, he could be questioned on substance.

"When it comes to actually addressing the issues of the community, I think he does a pretty poor job," she said.

Sensing such disappointment, the Republican presidential campaign of Mitt Romney believed that dismay among blacks could hinder Obama's re-election hopes last November.

But 93 percent of black voters went for Obama in 2012 -- just two percent lower than four years earlier.

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