Does Obama Owe a Debt to Black America?

Straight Up: Perhaps it's time some leaders got over a desire for a race-specific agenda.

President Barack Obama (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images NA)
President Barack Obama (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images NA)

(The Root) — Does President Barack Obama owe a special debt to black America? Does he have a duty to spell out a specific black policy agenda? Is it time for him to squarely talk about race again, something he hasn’t really done since his 2008 Philadelphia speech? Will he have failed as the first African-American president if he does not do so?

The question has urgency in certain quarters, with some asserting that Obama should “no longer get a pass” from black folks and implying that he is ignoring the needs of his most loyal constituents. The president’s second term is indeed under way. Ordinarily, the window of opportunity for major new presidential initiatives is short-lived and presumably doesn’t last beyond the first year of a second term (if that). Thus, many feel it is now or never for the president to address the unique claims of black America.

I do not expect him to do so, at least not in these terms. And I do not fault the president for the choices he is making in not taking this explicitly race-targeted path.

To be sure, I think I understand where the desire for Obama to articulate a distinctly black agenda comes from. First, America has not yet dealt honestly and fully with the depth of its racial wounds. Neither economically, politically nor culturally have we as a nation come to grips with how white supremacy and racism have distorted American society.

The most obvious modern manifestations of this circumstance are the high rates of black poverty; exceptionally high rates of black unemployment, especially long-term; and the abysmal rates of black incarceration. Black America has real, enduring collective grievances that must be addressed.

Second, in the eyes of many, Obama has either already delivered for other core constituency groups or at least shown a willingness to publicly embrace their policy priorities. The progress we have seen in his views and positions regarding the concerns of the gay and lesbian community is striking. Likewise, his support for the DREAM Act and the renewed push for comprehensive immigration reform signal clear attention to the top priorities of the Latino community. 

Third — and here, matters begin to get more than a little messy — there is a long tradition in African-American culture of demanding group loyalty and service to the cause. For some, Obama is just not governing in an authentically black manner. Indeed, for some, he is cynically duping and exploiting the loyalty of black America in pursuit of every cause but ours.

The critique from the black-authenticity police, at least implicitly, is that the true and virtuous black political leader would raise high the banner of anti-racism, voice the grievances of black America and at least declare publicly how he intends to acknowledge and reward his loyal black supporters. Perhaps then there would be less vocal outrage at his taking the oath of office with a hand on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible.