Does Obama Owe a Debt to Black America?

By: Lawrence D. Bobo

The Root

Does President Barack Obama owe a special debt to black America? Does he have a duty to spell out a specific black policy agenda? Is it time for him to squarely talk about race again, something he hasn’t really done since his 2008 Philadelphia speech? Will he have failed as the first African-American president if he does not do so?

The question has urgency in certain quarters, with some asserting that Obama should “no longer get a pass” from black folks and implying that he is ignoring the needs of his most loyal constituents. The president’s second term is indeed under way. Ordinarily, the window of opportunity for major new presidential initiatives is short-lived and presumably doesn’t last beyond the first year of a second term (if that). Thus, many feel it is now or never for the president to address the unique claims of black America.

I do not expect him to do so, at least not in these terms. And I do not fault the president for the choices he is making in not taking this explicitly race-targeted path.

To be sure, I think I understand where the desire for Obama to articulate a distinctly black agenda comes from. First, America has not yet dealt honestly and fully with the depth of its racial wounds. Neither economically, politically nor culturally have we as a nation come to grips with how white supremacy and racism have distorted American society.

The most obvious modern manifestations of this circumstance are the high rates of black poverty; exceptionally high rates of black unemployment, especially long-term; and the abysmal rates of black incarceration. Black America has real, enduring collective grievances that must be addressed.

Second, in the eyes of many, Obama has either already delivered for other core constituency groups or at least shown a willingness to publicly embrace their policy priorities. The progress we have seen in his views and positions regarding the concerns of the gay and lesbian community is striking. Likewise, his support for the DREAM Act and the renewed push for comprehensive immigration reform signal clear attention to the top priorities of the Latino community.

Third — and here, matters begin to get more than a little messy — there is a long tradition in African-American culture of demanding group loyalty and service to the cause. For some, Obama is just not governing in an authentically black manner. Indeed, for some, he is cynically duping and exploiting the loyalty of black America in pursuit of every cause but ours.

The critique from the black-authenticity police, at least implicitly, is that the true and virtuous black political leader would raise high the banner of anti-racism, voice the grievances of black America and at least declare publicly how he intends to acknowledge and reward his loyal black supporters. Perhaps then there would be less vocal outrage at his taking the oath of office with a hand on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible.


Of course, who defines what it is to be true to the group and to the cause is an endlessly fraught set of questions. In what Touré has called the era of post-blackness in his book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now, there are at least 40 million ways of validating a claim to blackness. There is no singular, simple black agenda and no simple, singular way to advance the interests of black America.

The clearest evidence we have of what black America wants, ironically, is the 95 percent vote for Obama in 2012. As such, in this post-black moment, I want to suggest loudly and plainly that this includes the clear legitimacy of an African-American president whose core focus is on a universal, not race-specific, policy agenda. The strategy was articulated 25 years ago by eminent African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson in his pivotal work The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy.

We need only look back to the last occasion when a president focused national attention on race to make us wary of calls to elevate such an agenda. President Bill Clinton’s “Conversation on Race,” although virtuous in motivation and high in ambition, did not produce the constructive social discourse — and certainly not the policy agenda and outcomes — that its advocates had expected. I see nothing in the current political climate suggesting that a renewed effort of this kind would fare any better.

Indeed, not only do the black-authenticity police need to leave Obama alone on this point, but we would all be better off if they acknowledged the political viability and sophistication of what he is doing. Obama’s recent call for a raise in the minimum age to assure an above-poverty-level standard of living and for universal access to early-childhood education — policies applicable to a wide segment of the American populace — will likely be of special benefit to African Americans, especially the most economically disadvantaged segments of black America. The left, especially the black left, should be cheering on these proposals and be part of public pressure to ensure their speedy enactment.

Having said this, I do believe that Obama may soon face a need to lay out a defense of and strategy for affirmative action. If the John Roberts Supreme Court scales back affirmative action in the Fisher v. Texas case it is now deciding, as seems likely, I do believe that Obama will have to weigh in, and do so in order to explicitly make the case for law and social policies that advance goals of diversity and inclusion.

I neither expect nor want Obama to articulate a black policy agenda. Black activists, intellectuals and community leaders need to be responsible for developing this agenda. Obama was elected president of the United States and should lead as such. With respect to blacks as a pivotal element of his constituency, Obama has outlined a smart, progressive agenda that appeals to the interests and needs of a wide segment of the American populace that will likely be of clear benefit to the economically disadvantaged of all races. It’s time to let the post-black president do the job we elected him to do.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.

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