Black America’s Stake in Obama’s State of the Union

If you listened closely to the president’s address, you heard a message for improving the lives of African Americans.

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28, 2014. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In terms of civil rights, Obama stated that “citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote,” adding that it should be “the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy.” It was a powerful rejoinder to the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which, on the heels of Republican-led efforts to reduce black-voter turnout in national elections, has weakened the Voting Rights Act.

With, perhaps, less emphasis than in his 2013 State of the Union, the president renewed his call to stop gun violence throughout the nation, something that plagues urban areas, including Obama’s hometown of Chicago.  

Ultimately, Obama’s speech offered concrete policy action, primarily through executive orders, that will greatly benefit the black community. The president eschewed a laundry list of bold policy proposals in favor of pragmatic policy measures that can be immediately enacted, and his focus on economic inequality is good news for black America.

African Americans will benefit from more access to education, jobs, health care, veterans’ benefits, retirement planning and gender equity. The single time that Obama specifically mentioned race—to announce the White House’s plans to aid young men of color—was important in underscoring the necessity of targeted programs to address institutional racism. On the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Obama’s State of the Union offered a fitting acknowledgment of the way in which the struggles for equality that have informed our national past continue to resonate today.  

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.