If you think Obama hasn’t delivered for African Americans, take a closer look at his record.
As many have pointed out, insisting that “Hey, things could have been worse” is not the most inspiring or convincing defense of one’s policies. And that’s part of the reason Obama’s critics, including Harris, have given the stimulus such short shrift. That said, it’s the policies that have yet to fully kick in that may do the most for African Americans. When the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act take effect in 2014, four million more African Americans will have health insurance, raising the proportion of blacks with health insurance from 78 percent to more than 90 percent, according to a November Health Affairs study. Nearly a quarter of all African Americans have the sort of preexisting medical conditions that Obamacare forbids insurers from discriminating against. Moreover, Obamacare will help shore up the finances of the thousands of municipal government and nonprofit hospitals that have been losing money treating the uninsured—hospitals that also happen to be a major source of employment for African Americans.
On a smaller scale, several of Obama’s primary and secondary education initiatives also will likely have a positive long-term effect on African Americans. The administration’s much-praised Race to the Top education reform competition has provided close to $5 billion extra for America’s schools. The stimulus gave $13 billion more to low-performing Title I schools, most of which serve minority students. The Education Department has delivered money to launch a project called Promise Neighborhoods, a holistic, “cradle to career” approach to education. Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the project has already dispensed one-year planning grants of $500,000 each to thirty-six neighborhoods, all but a few of which are predominantly African American or minority. Five neighborhoods have been granted about $30 million each over the course of five years.
One of those, the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, is located in the city’s impoverished East Side, where about 72 percent of residents are black. At full capacity, it plans on providing education, health care, mentoring, and housing relief to about 12,000 residents. In Minneapolis, the Northside Achievement Zone, which is about 50 percent black and also received one of the more generous grants, saw its yearly budget increase from $1.3 million to $6.9 million starting this year. “The grant has allowed us to put such energy and momentum into something that was going to take a much, much longer time to build,” says NAZ President Sondra Samuels. The program, Samuels says, largely depends on a group of employees called “NAZ connectors” who interact on a regular basis with many of the zone’s 2,200 families to help them stay engaged with their children’s and their own education. Before the grant arrived, Samuels was stretched thin, with only four NAZ connectors; now she has twenty-four.
Obama’s Department of Justice has also made meaningful strides in advancing racial justice. Some are high profile, like challenges to restrictive state voting laws. Others are less celebrated but still profound; the department has cracked down on prison rape, for instance, and reversed the Bush administration’s practice of hiring conservative lawyers with little experience in civil rights law to the Civil Rights Division. Legislatively, the Obama administration has made penalties for crack and powder cocaine more equitable. All of these are examples of targeted universalism.
Nor has the Obama administration failed to deliver for African Americans in more traditional race-specific ways. It directed an additional $2.55 billion to historically black colleges and universities, and between 2009 and 2011 it more than doubled the amount of federal contracts and capital available to minority-owned businesses than had been available in the previous three years. The Obama administration also delivered $1.25 billion in legal claims to black farmers who were discriminated against by federal loan officers in the 1980s and ’90s. But these policies, while symbolically important, are footnotes to Obama’s bigger, broader accomplishments.
Last year, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, an early proponent of race-neutral policies benefiting blacks, told the journalist Paul Tough that Obama “had done more for lower-income Americans than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson.” It follows, somewhat intuitively, that he’s also accomplished more for African Americans than any president in a half century. All he’s missing is his own Howard University “race speech” to show for it.
A few days after the election, Mitt Romney delivered a postmortem assessment to his donors that Obama had won over women, minorities, and young voters by showering them with “gifts.” The comment was crude and offensive, but in a sense, it demonstrated a better understanding of Obama’s first term than that of West, Smiley, and some of the president’s other progressive critics. African Americans may have suffered during Obama’s first term as they were hit hard by the effects of the Great Recession. But it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that Obama has not been looking out for black America, as ordinary African Americans well know and demonstrated in the polls last November.
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