Obama, Black Leaders: It’s Complicated

Author Jonathan Alter examines the president's relationships with his prominent black critics and allies.

Cornel West (John Lamparski/WireImage); The Center Holds (Simon & Schuster); Al Sharpton (Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

The president’s record showed that he had delivered for African Americans far beyond college loans and Obama care. The stimulus saved hundreds of thousands of jobs of state and local workers, a large percentage of them black, and provided $850 million for historically black colleges as part of its aid to higher education. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 ended the discrepancy in punishment for crimes that involve the same amounts of crack and powdered cocaine.

The extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit kept millions of the working poor, disproportionately black, from slipping back into poverty, and the extension of unemployment insurance and food stamps helped millions of African Americans. But with black unemployment at 14 percent and 4 out of 10 young black males still caught up in the criminal-justice system, Obama had hardly transformed the community he had sought to join when he was a young man.

In early March of 2013, Sharpton and seven other African-American leaders met with the president in the Roosevelt Room. The issue of whether Obama was pursuing a pro-black agenda came up again. Sharpton told the story of a friend who converted to Islam, then ate a ham sandwich and claimed it wasn’t pork. Sharpton told the president, “I said to my friend that day, ‘Just because it’s not called pork doesn’t mean it isn’t.’ And just because your agenda isn’t called pro-black doesn’t mean it isn’t.” Obama was happy to embrace the pork metaphor.

The president was feeling liberated and free to express himself a little more now. About a month after the election, the Obamas hosted a small party for close friends and a few people from the administration and the campaign. The president was standing in a small group and said he was the only president since Roosevelt to have won twice with more than 51 percent of the vote. It was true that Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all had three-way races that kept them under 51 percent.

Eisenhower was, in fact, the last such president, but that was more than a half-century ago, so the boast was still impressive enough. One of his African-American friends, switching to street vernacular, said, “Well, I guess that makes it perfectly clear: Youse a bad motherf–ker.”

“That’s my point,” the president replied, without missing a beat.

Reprinted from The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies by Jonathan Alter, © 2013. Published by Simon & Schuster.