African Americans have given President Obama a racial pass – that’s something on which his Black supporters and opponents agree.

That uncomfortable truth, however, seems to be creating an increasingly persistent itch within the Black community, especially in light of the disproportionate growth of joblessness that plague their neighborhoods and the president’s unwillingness to consider targeted policies to ameliorate that chronic unemployment.

“I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping Black folks. I’m the president of the United States,” the president said in a Dec. 21 interview with American Urban Radio Networks. “What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”

But that so-called philosophy of “a rising tide lifts all boats” continues to stick in the craw of many, including Black Capitol Hill lawmakers, who met with the president last week to discuss jobs.

That stance sparked on-air fisticuffs between the Rev. Al Sharpton and talk show host Tavis Smiley, who seemed to question the president’s responsiveness to the “Black agenda” and accused Black leaders – including Sharpton – who met with the president last month to talk about jobs of being Obama’s “chorus.” Sharpton had said in post-meeting comments to The New York Times that the president was “smart not to ballyhoo a Black agenda.”

But some Black lawmakers such as Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., disagree that targeted policies aren’t needed.

“It’s just like a patient in a hospital, if you’re critical, you’re in intensive care; if you’re doing well, you’re generally in a less intensive environment… So if you have areas that have a very serious problem then you need to have a more aggressive and targeted program in order to heal those problems,” he told the AFRO.

Despite that divergent opinion, lawmakers have shied away from any sharp remarks on the issue, though CBC Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said the caucus remains the White House’s – and Congress’ – conscience.

“There will always be a healthy tension between members of Congress and the president – and you want that in a democracy – whether the president is Black or not,” she said. “I don’t think any CBC member – from what I’ve gathered – is feeling muddled; we’re very open with the president.”

But that tension seems to be suppressed outside of closed doors and any mumblings have been “more symbolism than any real criticism of the president,” said political analyst Robert Smith.

One reason why the Black community has chosen to cage its frustrations is that many believe the president is sensitive to Black issues and dedicated to solving them – albeit in his own way and in his own time given the deluge of problems – recession, foreclosures, health care reform, two wars, etc. – he has to tackle.

“We know that President Obama is very acutely aware of ,” said Stephanie Myers of the grassroots group, Black Women for Obama. She added, “We understand what he’s facing. So, it’s not a reluctance to criticize him as much as it is political maturity that African-Americans… recognize that you can’t build Rome in a day.”

That political maturity also recognizes that should Obama display even the suggestion of favoritism towards Blacks, he would get backlash from Congress and the public and would feed the conservative talk show machine for months. It was the same for President John F. Kennedy and Catholics, Smith said.

“Nixon would have been a better president fro Catholics and it would have been easier for Black people to bring pressure on Hillary Clinton to close this gap than on a Black president,” said Smith. “A White liberal president would have had more room to maneuver on this issue than a Black president has.”

Already, the president has been fielding a barrage of unfair attacks with an undertow of racism, supporters say, and they won’t make things worse.

“Some of us feel when you hear people talking about ‘Let’s take our country back’ that there are racial overtones to some of the criticisms,” Payne said. “Therefore we feel a responsibility to insulate him and… of protecting him.”

Still, while Black leaders may not criticize the president, they’re not as careful with members of his administration.

“We’re not necessarily pleased with some of his people,” Payne said. “I don’t think that some of his key people have had the experience of working with the problems of inner cities and rural areas. Many of them come from strict business backgrounds.”

Smith added, “I think they take Black people for granted… and they will continue to do that.”

That complacency could affect the president’s sophomore White House campaign.

“If he does nothing – though I suspect he will – to attack these problems then that will dampen enthusiasm in the Black community. He will still get the majority of the Black vote, but the turnout will be less,” Smith said.

Payne said he expects Black support to be just as stalwart in 2012 because of the racial pride invested in Obama as the first Black president of the United States.

“It’s something many of us older people like myself felt it would not happen in my lifetime,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “And, therefore, the fact that it’s happened, we’re going to do everything we can to support him and to work diligently for his re-election.”

That’s because African Americans see Obama as representative of the race and as a refutation of the negative stereotypes that have dogged them, Smith added.

“For all of us – even Blacks who ideologically disagree with him – his triumph is the triumph of the race as a whole.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO