(The Root) — It could be argued that President Obama has been one of the greatest targets of criticism in presidential history. For many black Americans this has not entirely been a surprise, with the president's race making him an even more attractive target than previous presidents. What has been surprising to some is the level of criticism the president has faced from some black Americans for his leadership on issues disproportionately affecting black people.
Journalist Tavis Smiley and scholar Cornel West are among the high-profile black Americans who have drawn headlines for their criticism of the Obama administration's handling of poverty and black unemployment. Smiley has spoken repeatedly of the need to "check the president," particularly on black unemployment, saying in an interview with Houston's The Box radio station:
We gotta check him respectfully, he can't be afraid to talk about black unemployment, when he needed to stand up for the Jews he did, gays and lesbians? he did, immigration for the Hispanic community? he did so don't leave black folks twisted in the wind because you are afraid of being accused of being "tribal" and giving negroes the "hook up". We are the most loyal part of your base!
But the Congressional Black Caucus, which is convening in Washington, D.C., for its annual legislative conference this week, has also been a stern critic of the president. A year ago Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, currently the chair of the CBC, said of the Obama administration's handling of black unemployment: "Can you imagine a situation where any other group of workers, if 34 percent of white women were out there looking for work and couldn't find it? You would see Congressional hearings and community gatherings. There would be rallies and protest marches. There is no way that this would be allowed to stand." Cleaver was not alone, with other members of the Caucus also expressing their disappointment and concern.
In an interview with The Root during this year's Democratic National Convention (which can be read in its entirety here), Cleaver noted that if President Obama were white, he would actually be the target of more pronounced criticism by the CBC. But black lawmakers are sensitive to the heightened criticism he faces from other corners — including some that is racially based.
After the interview, the congressman's office noted that the CBC has worked with the Obama administration to provide guidance on how the administration could work more effectively on the issue of black unemployment. According to a CBC representative, "The Congressional Black Caucus hosted a jobs tour last year from September to October of 2011 and collected policy recommendations from the cities they visited and delivered a report to President Obama that had nine recommendations from the people that they talked to, and all of the recommendations were included in the American Jobs Act."
On Monday, at what was a billed as an election 2012 "Uptown Hall," hosted by BET at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York's Harlem community, moderator and host of Don't Sleep T.J. Holmes navigated a panel discussion, of which I was a part, that included the Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson and others on black criticism of the Obama administration's accomplishments relating to African Americans.
In a stinging rebuke of many of President Obama's most vocal black critics, Sharpton noted that many of those criticizing the real first black president celebrated the man called "the first black president," Bill Clinton — though he wasn't black, and even though some of his policies, like welfare reform, had long-term negative effects on the economic status of some black communities. Sharpton also added that as long as there have been black folks, there have been black critics.
In a statement to The Root, White House spokesman Kevin Lewis defended the administration's efforts regarding the economic woes of black Americans, saying:
African Americans were hit especially hard by the Great Recession, and through the president's leadership and the help of many members of Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus, we've doubled funding for Pell Grants so more students — including an additional 200,000 African Americans — can afford to go to school. [We've] expanded health care coverage to over 7 million African Americans; extended earned income tax credits and child tax credits that benefited over 2.2 million African Americans; extended unemployment insurance benefits for over 1 million African American; provided over $7 billion in minority contracting; provided over $2 billion in funding to HBCUs and MSIs; kept 1.4 million African Americans out of poverty through the Recovery Act; increased job training programs and paired more businesses to community colleges. These are not just numbers; these investments are increasing financial security for American families, expanding the middle class and providing ladders of opportunity for families in need.
He also noted, however, that "there is still more work to do."
It remains to be seen how many of the president's high-profile critics within the black community will be willing to roll up their sleeves and work as allies with him, should he earn a second term.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.