What’s Obama Done for Black People? Nothing

And that's the way it should be. Save the criticism for his policies that affect all Americans.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — Rick Santorum once said that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religious freedom made him want to “throw up.” But with the notable exception of the former senator and onetime GOP presidential contender, it would be tough finding a Catholic American who’d look back on the tenure of our first Catholic president and assess that he didn’t do enough for Catholics.

But there’s no shortage of folks who say that President Barack Obama — our first black president — hasn’t done enough for African Americans. So to help them out, I’ll sum up exactly what Obama has done for black people:

Nothing. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

But not according to Columbia University’s Fredrick Harris, who lamented at great length in Friday’s Washington Post that “far from giving black America greater influence in U.S. politics, Obama’s ascent to the White House has signaled the decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on.”

He rips Obama for the “disparities in the criminal justice system; the disproportionate impact of the foreclosure crisis on communities of color; black unemployment; and the persistence of HIV/AIDS,” writing that “even as we watch him go out of his way to lift up other marginalized groups (such as gay Americans) and call for policies that help everyone, we’ve accepted his silence on issues of particular interest to us.”

But missing the irony of his own critique, Harris never seems to consider that “policies that help everyone” are precisely the point for a president. And he appears to be missing the very real triumph of a democracy in which Obama endorsed same-sex marriage and repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” a half-century after Kennedy telephoned to support Martin Luther King Jr. after his release from Birmingham City Jail.

To suggest, though, that over the last four years Obama should have pushed for policies specifically targeted toward black America is to misunderstand the Obama presidency.

On Sunday the Post’s Jonathan Capehart offered an exhaustive rebuttal to Harris, pointing out that Obama ramped up his Office of National AIDS Policy, signed the Fair Sentencing Act and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — needed, arguably, by black mortgage holders more than anyone.

But Capehart left out the big picture about both Obama and the black electorate: that African Americans, including Obama, are concerned with more than just black issues. Like other Americans, black voters wanted Osama bin Laden found and killed. Black voters supported the GM bailout, celebrated the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and were relieved to see their 401(k)s come back to life in the last few years.