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Obama’s Not the First Black President; He’s the First President Who is Black

By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III


( - The debate continues.  Professor Frederick Harris has written in his Op Ed, Still Waiting for Our First Black President, “Obama has pursued a racially defused electoral and governing strategy, keeping issues of specific interest to African Americans —off the national agenda.”  Michael Nutter the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia replied to Harris in the Huffington Post, “Barack Obama…has fought every single day to improve the livelihood and well-being of the African-American community…We have our first black President, his name is President Barack Obama…”

Here’s the reality that must be clearly understood. President Obama is not the first Black President; he’s the first President who is Black.  A Black President would have come into office with a “Black Agenda.”  If he were the first Black President he would be using his bully pulpit to champion legislation targeting unemployment in urban areas, poverty, income disparity, and other issues. This in no way should be interpreted to challenge his “Blackness.”  It’s about the agenda not the man.

If President Obama were the first Black President, the prison at Guantanamo Bay would be closed.  He would not have signed the 2012 Defense Authorization Act (DAA) allowing for US citizens to be indefinitely detained. His Black Attorney General would not have made the case to assassinate US citizens abroad without judicial review.  If Obama were the first Black President, he would not have supported the assassination of Libyan President Gaddafi.

A Black President would have come into office with a historical appreciation of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that led to the attack on the civil liberties and civil rights of many individuals involved in the Civil Rights movement as well as the CIA’s involvement in assassinating other African leaders.  A Black President would not want to repeat this history by supporting the DAA, and assassination lists.

President Obama is the first President who is Black and as such operates as a functionary of the United States Government. A President who is Black focuses on the so-called “war on terror” and “protecting American interests abroad” with no other historical reference to guide him.

His primary focus has been on broader national policies such as the Child Tax Credit, Small Business Jobs Act, and saving the American auto industry.  All of these (and other policies) are policies from which African Americans have benefitted but do not specifically target the ills impacting the African American community.

This is not to infer that Professor Harris’ premise is wrong; he’s correct.  While campaigning for the presidency Senator Obama did court the Black community for its vote.  He did discuss “…racial injustice in front of black audiences” and he did support “targeted and universal policies to address racial inequality.”  President Obama has changed his focus because as Rev. Wright so adroitly observed, “he’s a politician.”

Nutter is wrong to challenge Harris’ assessment that President Obama has pursued race neutral politics. President Obama has, as stated by Harris, “pursued a racially defused electoral and governing strategy…”  According to the Washington Post, “Lawmakers (CBC) have met with the administration three times this year (2011) seeking support for programs that specifically address the black community, but President Obama has not backed their proposals… The caucus chairman (Cleaver)…slammed the deal negotiated by the administration to raise the national debt ceiling and cut government spending as a “Satan sandwich” that unfairly harms African Americans.”

In theory, Nutter is correct when he writes, “Throughout the past three years, President Obama has been focused on building an economy that is built to last. And in spite of the obstacles, the economy is making progress and each month, more and more Americans, and African Americans are getting back to work.”  The reality is that while the unemployment rate for the country was 8.2 percent; the national unemployment rate for African Americans is double that at 16.6 percent.   The President’s efforts will not address chronic income disparity or the wealth gap.  According to 2007 U.S. Census Data, White families made 62 percent more than Black families. Based on data from the 2002 Survey of Income and Program Participation, White median household net worth was about $90,000, compared to a mere $6,000 for the median Black household. As Dr. Ronald Walters explains in White Nationalism Black Interests, these indicators of greater social instability loom large for a substantial portion of the Black community that has not benefitted from the economic system.

What too many in the Black community refuse to accept is as Harris wrote, “If he won’t do it (support Black interests) on his own, Obama will have to be pressured to act and to keep the few promises he made to black America in 2008.  This is not a failure of Obama; it’s the failure of the community to move from the politics of personality to the politics of policy. Obama’s not the first Black President; he’s the first President who is Black.

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