What has Barack Obama done for black people?Monday, December 15, 2014
George S GARWOOD
BARACK Obama seems to be a really nice and friendly person. He's a great speechmaker. Take for instance, his 2008 speech, 'A more perfect union', there he waxes eloquently and profoundly about the founding of America, slavery, civil rights, his own experience as a son of a Kenyan father, and a white American mother; about his religious beliefs, and so forth. This great speech could be summed up by one single quote: "If we simply retreat into our respective corners we will never come together."
So it is a given that he is a fine speechmaker. But, besides that, what has he done for black people since he took office in January 2008, until now, December 2014? This is a very hard question to answer. For, although he is the first black president, he is not a black people's president. He is supposed to be the president for all America, white, black or polka-dotted. So the question should not be framed as, what has he done for black America, but rather, what has he done for America, black and white?
The answer, of course, will depend on one's political persuasion. But, despite varying opinions about Obama, some facts remain unalterable. For instance, Lance Neita writing in the Agenda magazine in the Sunday Observer, November 9, 2014, says: "He broke all racial barriers to become the world's most powerful leader. For that achievement alone he claims a unique place in history as the first black president of the United States."
Likewise, when Obama took office, America was entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he promised to bring home the troops. And, with the exceptions of some essential rearguard troops, and a few new ones who remain in these theatres of conflict, Obama has more or less kept his promise.
When he came to power also, America was reeling from bank failures, and the housing crisis. He managed to cauterise the financial and economic wounds that were bleeding America into an anaemic state.
He had aimed to capture or kill one of the principal architects of America's 9/11 tragedy. He, with the Navy Seals claimed success in that endeavour. There were many areas of diplomacy and politics that he had to attend to, not least, trying to work more constructively with America's allies, and the United Nations, so as to repair the damage and mistrust that were created, for instance, by the Iraqi War adventure of the previous Administration.
So, there were many positive things that Obama managed to do in his first term as president. But things started to unwind for him, particularly with his signature health care provisions; in his responses to the so-called Arab Spring, the militant jihadists blowbacks in the Middle East and Africa, presumably, due to America's, and other Western countries' responses to terrorism. Plus, the NSA spying scandals targeting not only foreigners, but Americans; these events didn't burnish Obama's CV either.
So Obama has been very preoccupied with the big ticket items to do with national and international issues to find time to pay much attention to black issues. But more significantly, he didn't want to appear to favour black causes, for fear that the majority population might accuse him of being a 'racists' -- which some of them did anyway. So, he thought he'd stay clear of racial issues, particularly, after his defence of his friend and the academician Louis Gates Jr, who was arrested in July 2009 by James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department in , Boston for 'burglarising' his (Gates) own house. Obama, at the time, said the police 'acted stupidly' because he suspected an element of racial profiling in Gates' arrest. Obama was later to retract that statement.
However, events since Trayvon Martin's killing in February 2012, and the acquittal of the vigilante George Zimmerman for the death of that unarmed black 17-year-old, had prompted President Obama at the time to say: "Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago." So, here again, he became somewhat involved in a black cause.
Notwithstanding, this tentative foray into a racial issue, Obama seemed to have been pretty quiet since then, until the recent protests and riots caused by the acquittal of Darren Wilson, by a grand jury of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who on August 9, 2014 fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black youth. Obama soon after the Ferguson decision was again pulled into another dispute after the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July 2014, by Daniel Pantaleo, a New York cop with the apparent assistance of his police comrades.
in this incident that was videotaped, despite Garner repeatedly pleading, 'I can't breathe', the grand jury on December 3, 2014 decided not to indict Pantaleo for the death of Garner. This decision outraged many people in America, and, at this very moment, protests continue over his death, and other slayings of unarmed black men in America by law enforcement officers.
Obama spoke out in measured tones against these killings, and in one of his annual talks at the White House to the Tribal Nations Conference attendees, he said: "It's incumbent on all of us as Americans ...that we recognise that this is an American problem and not just a black problem. It is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law."
So, with these general statements about race in America, and about police mistrust, especially in the wake of the shootings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin, Obama has not done a whole lot to help black people. For it seems that the rate of black incarcerations, black poverty, unemployment, and crime affect black people more disproportionately than they do their white counterparts.
On Africa, too, for although Obama has pledged assistance to tackle, say the Ebola epidemic in West Africa by sending medical and military personnel to these parts, and although,, back in August 2014, he announced $33 billion in commitments to Africa (and before that he had pledged money so that Africa could generate more electric power) so as to strengthen America's financial ties in Africa (that goes beyond mere humanitarian aid); despite, all his promises, much of the continent of Africa is stilled mired in poverty, war, and other social and economic problems.
Obama, the pacifist
Obama is as we've seen, a great communicator. But he is a pacifist, and a very cautious president. He is less Hannibal, that great Carthaginian General (second century BC), and more Fabius, the Roman General, aka, the "Cunctator," or "delayer". Obama in his fight with Hannibal (the present day Republicans?) prefers to wage a war of slow attrition, avoiding direct engagement whenever possible. But time is running out on Obama for decisive action, for having now loss both houses of Congress, and where dissentions threaten his own party's unity, his room for manoeuvring is severely restricted.
Obama's gradualism or over-cautiousness in the present racial situation in America doesn't work. For, in his view of America's racial divide, Obama tells BET News (December 8, 2014) that: "If you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they'll tell you that things are better; not good, in some cases, but better... And the reason it's important for us to understand progress has been made is that it then gives us hope that we can make even more progress ... we have to be persistent, because typically progress is in steps."
No time to lose
However, Obama needs to act more decisively about such racial disparities in the justice system of America, for the 'steady-as-you-go' approach amounts to "justice delayed is justice denied". He will have to seriously consider the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr's stance about civil and equal rights. For when King was faced with the stalling tactics of his detractors, he declared: "We've been waiting for 300 years for our freedom, how much longer must we wait?"
George S Garwood is a Jamaican educator and writer who travels between Jamaica, the UK, and the USA.