What To Make Of The NAACP, Urban League, Obama Meeting?

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I received an email today from the White House stating that President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with NAACP President Ben Jealous and Urban League President Marc Morial.   President Obama’s schedule (which can be seen here) shows that the meeting will be roughly 25 minutes, giving these three important black men a little less than half an hour to discuss whatever lies on their collective agenda.

The White House didn’t state the purpose of the meeting, but I’ll make a point to reach out to Ben and Marc to see if they have anything to say.  Without knowing the purpose of the conversation, one might be able to guess which issue will be on the table first.

Black unemployment in America is at approximately the same level it was for all Americans toward the end of the Great Depression.  At that time, when one out of every six Americans was out of work, the government felt a sense of urgency and public pressure to do something to help alleviate the suffering.  In contrast, the current federal government has not (to my knowledge) mentioned any plan to engage in targeted policy to manage vast racial inequality that continues to plague our society.  If we’d had the same level of inactivity on racial inequality in the past, slavery never would have come to an end.

This lack of action has both a cause and a consequence.  One cause of the complacency is that the Obama Administration seems to believe that it has nothing to prove to African Americans.  Unlike Bill Clinton, a man who had to continuously reiterate his loyalty to African Americans via progressive action, President Obama wears his “Black Loyalty Card” on his skin.  I am not sure if any other president in recent history could get away with saying that he would not address racial inequality and instead expect that a “rising tide will lift all boats.”  In other words, the Obama Administration has been allowed to use a racialized version of trickle down economics, presuming that helping the entire economy would somehow help black people too.

The consequence of economic negligence of the black community has been staggering.  Black wealth at the start of the recession was a measly 1/10 that of white Americans.  Since that time, it has dropped to a shocking 1/50th, implying that nearly everything that black people have worked for over the last 30 years has disappeared into the wind.  Secondly, white unemployment has dropped during the recession (9.4% to 9.1%), while black unemployment has climbed dramatically (14.7% to 16.2%).  No matter what one thinks about Congress, The Obama Administration or anyone else, you can’t possibly argue that black people are better off now than they were three years ago – one must sadly say that a Republican president would have a tough time creating a worse economic situation.

President Obama can’t be blamed entirely for the political storm around him.  He must, however, be held accountable for how his administration has responded to the storm, for one must be careful about giving in to ignorance.  Fighting racial inequality requires courage and self-sacrifice, two attributes that are rarely present in the psyches of successful politicians.   At this point,  the black folks most likely to overlook the inactivity of the Obama Administration are likely the people who still have their jobs.   Of the remainder, there are those who’ve lost hope in the political process and have no interest in turning to the Republican party.  So, any resentment toward the Obama Administration is primarily a reflection of frustration with our broken political system itself – both lovers and haters of Obama are unified in their disappointment with the grim reality of elitist American politics.

I respect both Ben Jealous and Marc Morial immensely.  I sat on panels with them at the last two “Measuring the Movement” forums, hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton.  While Ben and I have bumped heads over the NAACP’s decision to take money from accused predatory lender Wells Fargo, I strongly suspect that his heart is in the right place.  Morial, being a seasoned political figure, has done a wonderful job of making calculated and intelligent decisions as he learns what it means for our nation to have its first black president.  Rather than positioning himself as an unconditional Obama cheerleader (or relentless critic), he has focused his energy on courageous advocacy for working class Americans.  Rev. Jesse Jackson has also done a good job of keeping a level head (although some still criticize him for the Fox News mixup back in 2008) – personally, I believe Rev. Jackson should be invited to the White House as well, along with Al Sharpton – no one should be frozen out or tempted to jockey for power; this divide-and-conquer tactic used by Washington politicians comes at a huge price for the African American community.

As Jealous and Morial stand with another black man in the nation’s most powerful office, I fully expect that all three of these men understand the gravity of the task which lies before them.  While President Obama’s astute political gamesmanship against reckless, myopic Republicans is certainly admirable, African Americans are still waiting for his administration to help them understand why he gave them a reason to show up to the polls in 2008.  He made extraordinary promises, so he received extraordinary support.   It’s nonsense to think that we have no right to ask for his time.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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