At this week’s NAACP convention in Houston, one prominent black leader will not be addressing this historic group: the nation’s first black president. President Obama’s absence from major NAACP events could be called a pattern, as he has not addressed the group since 2009, during the honeymoon phase of his presidency. His absence is turning out to be wise because he can avoid answering this question, “Are blacks better off since he took office?” If the president were to give an account of his administration’s advancement of African Americans he would be hard pressed to describe anything significant beyond funneling redistributed wealth into government bureaucracies, a traditional path to the middle class for blacks. His policies have done nothing to improve the economic standing of people of color on the margins.
Here are the facts: In November 2008, the black unemployment rate was 11.1 percent. By June 2012, the number had risen to 14.4 percent. In the same period the overall unemployment rate increased from 6.5 percent to 7.4 percent. As such, under the policies and leadership of the Obama administration, the economic lives of struggling blacks are now worse, not better, than they were three years ago.
Even with the economic failure, the “African Americans for Obama” section of the President’s campaign website lists his “accomplishments” in the black community noting increased government-backed bank “lending for low-income Americans,” the passing of Obamacare, and increased government-funded education programs. Also, through government welfare programs Obama “doubled” funding for Pell Grants, secured $2.55 billion in tax payer funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, “awarded nearly $300 billion in federal contracts to small businesses,” and so on. In other words, the President has helped blacks by redistributing the taxes collected from American workers and using government to provide race-based preferential treatment opportunities yet has not fostered the conditions favorable for broadly increasing black wealth through market-based economic growth.
Perhaps the economic lapses explain why prominent black scholars, like Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University and Dr. Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University, are so openly critical of Obama. Sustained unemployment is not the change many black Americans expected back in 2008. When recently asked about the upcoming 2012 presidential race, Cornel West, a self-proclaimed Marxist, said, "Mitt Romney is a catastrophic response to a catastrophe, whereas Obama is a disastrous response to a catastrophe.” West has accused Obama of pandering to the lobbying special interests of large corporations calling the president “another black mascot” of “Wall Street oligarchs” who is not doing enough for black people.
Joining West in highlighting Obama’s economic inadequacy, Boyce Watkins finds that “black American enthusiasm for President Obama is dead.” Watkins explains, “Obama was not skilled enough, nor strong enough to meet the high expectations in front of him” when he took office. As a frustrated former supporter, Watkins laments, “defending President Obama is like demanding a better grade for your child when you know that your baby has been lazy in class.” The Obama administration seems only interested in “the black community around election time (when they need us to show up to the polls).” In the end, Watkins centers recent criticisms on his belief that “white folks are experiencing an economic recovery, while black unemployment remains at levels that would never be acceptable to the rest of America.”
The critiques of West and Watkins are important, but they do not fully articulate the damage done by stratospheric unemployment levels. What is so unconscionable about black unemployment rates, which were as high as16.7 percent in 2011, is that unemployment has moral as well as financial implications. In Laborem excercens, Pope John Paul II stressed that work allows us to realize our humanity, “to fulfill the calling to be a person.” The high black unemployment rate is robbing thousands of blacks of their dignity.
The Obama administration must go beyond even what many of his black critics envision by radically removing regulatory and legislative barriers that interfere with entrepreneurs doing what they do best—namely, creating jobs. If black unemployment remains at these record numbers Obama may find himself snubbed at the polls in November, just as he snubbed the NAACP this week.