President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address offered the black community new policy measures—focused on jobs, education, health care and retirement—to close the growing economic gap between America’s rich and poor.
Obama’s opening remarks focused on his administration’s accomplishments, including a 6.7 percent unemployment rate, reduced deficits and robust investment. And he acknowledged that “inequality has deepened,” contrasting growing poverty with increasing wealth. “Upward mobility has stalled,” explained the president, admitting that millions of Americans were working tirelessly just to stay afloat. “And too many still aren’t working at all.”
He called for employers to provide a living wage, promising to issue an executive order increasing the minimum wage of federally contracted employees to $10.10 an hour, and—in one of the night’s most memorable lines—Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage overall with this straight-ahead appeal:
“Give America a raise.”
The focus on workers included a plan, MyRA, to direct the Treasury Department to encourage “folks to build a nest egg,” which will be vital to promoting more robust retirement savings for black families, who, historically, have had less wealth than their white counterparts.
For African Americans, the Great Recession’s legacy is seemingly a permanent feature of everyday life. Obama’s vow to use the executive branch to increase opportunity for all American families is long overdue. The president’s focus on expanding educational access for all, through partnerships with the federal government and nonprofits, could have a major impact in black communities perpetually struggling to reduce high school dropout rates and increase rates of college graduation. The first tangible example is the White House’s newly launched College Opportunity Summit, a network of more than 150 universities, businesses and community groups that have pledged to help open pathways to higher education.
Obama’s call for Congress to renew unemployment benefits for 1.6 million Americans will aid black Americans, who represent a disproportionate number of the nation’s jobless.
Obama’s speech featured ambitious plans to overhaul the nation’s education, with a specific focus on poor and disadvantaged students. The president’s commitment to offer “every child a world-class education” comes as welcome news to millions of black children who attend racially segregated and underfunded public schools. On this score, Obama pledged to work toward ensuring that every child in America receives a high-quality pre-K education, something that 30 states are already doing.
The president’s proposals include expanding high-speed broadband across the nation, capping student-loan repayments at 10 percent of graduates’ income, and, perhaps most important, a “new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.” Unfortunately, Obama’s speech offered few specifics on what these proposals might be, but it’s important that they represent the kind of targeted policy required to combat America’s historic and continuing legacies of racial injustice.
Obama highlighted the positives of the Affordable Care Act, the most significant social-policy legislation passed in the last half-century, and the one that promises to have the largest impact on African Americans, who remain disproportionately uninsured.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.