In describing her attitude toward the system of apartheid in the South, Fannie Lou Hamer once remarked, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Obviously this incredible warrior woman/freedom fighter was committed to engaging the struggle to produce change, including creating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an alternative to an unresponsive local and national Democratic Party. Much has changed in the decades since Fannie Lou Hamer uttered these words and put her life on the line to bring down the walls of apartheid in the South. Because of the civil rights/human rights/Black Power struggles of the 60s and 70s, large numbers of Blacks entered the middle class and now enjoy a measure of prosperity far beyond the fondest dreams of their forbearers. Blacks now hold prominent positions in virtually every facet of American society. In addition, of course Blacks occupy elected and appointed offices at every level in local, state and national government right up to the President of the United States.
However, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As the Institute of the Black World 21st Century articulates in the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X Community Revitalization Initiative, there are now two Black Americas, largely “separate and unequal.” One relatively affluent/well off and the other Black America that is mired in chronic poverty, unemployment, underemployment and afflicted by inferior education, health disparities, poor housing, crime, violence, fratricide, police brutality and jails/prisons. While large numbers of Blacks have moved up, large numbers have also been left behind and locked up, and abandoned, disinherited, and dispossessed. Tragically, large numbers of the dispossessed in Black America are youth/young people, many of whom see the “American dream” as a cruel hoax and nightmare. Certainly, the dispossessed and those who work on their behalf have every right to proclaim, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Barack Hussein Obama’s campaign for President of the United States offered a ray of hope that the decades of benign and blatant neglect under Democratic and Republican administrations would end. There was hope that a Black man in the White House, who had worked as a community organizer among the dispossessed on the South Side of Chicago, would understand their plight and act to “change” their condition. This is the same faith that Blacks have invested in the Democratic Party since John F. Kennedy called Martin Luther King while he was in jail cell in Birmingham. Blacks deliver their votes to the Democratic Party, as its most loyal constituency, providing the margin of difference in elections from Congress to the White House. Yet, we are never rewarded in proportion to our support of the party or to needs of the dispossessed. With Obama in the White House, the hope was, “this time it would be different.”
Spearheaded by a dramatic increase in younger voters, Blacks turned out in record numbers to give Barack Obama 97 percent of the Black vote. Though Obama deftly avoided raising Black issues and grievances, or directly responding to a “Black agenda,” Black people across the board were willing to trust that once in the White House the first Black President would remember those left behind on Chicago’s South Side. Including the lessons, he learned at the activist-oriented Trinity United Church of Christ under the leadership of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Nearly a year into his presidency, however, there are few signs that President Obama is prepared to directly address the plight of the dispossessed in Black America. In addition, there is evidence that members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black leaders are getting “sick and tired” of huge bailouts of the Banks and financial sector and the auto industry while there is Depression level unemployment in Black communities across the country. In a recent interview, Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland revealed the shocking statistic that more than 50% of Blacks are unemployed in inner city Baltimore. In New York City, the highly respected Community Service Society published a report a few years ago indicating that unemployment among Black men was in excess of 50%. It is highly doubtful that this figure has improved during the current economic downturn. In addition, while I do not have statistics for other urban inner-city areas, there is no reason to believe that these locales are not suffering horrific levels of unemployment especially during the present economic collapse. As Vernon Jordan once put it - “When White America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.”
To be fair, the crisis in Black America is not new. Chronic unemployment in the inner cities has been a major problem for decades. During the Nixon years, the late Senator Patrick Moynihan suggested that a policy of “benign neglect” to avoid allocating resources to address the crises in America’s “dark ghettos.” Ronald Reagan unapologetically shredded the social safety net, selling White America on the idea that government programs were largely benefiting Blacks to the detriment of Whites. Despite his reputation as the “first Black President,” Bill Clinton focused on debt and deficit reduction as opposed to an urban policy to aid Blacks, people of color and the poor. However, economic growth under Clinton did lift some of the boats at the bottom, absent a targeted urban strategy to address chronic unemployment and poverty, vast numbers of Blacks remained at the bottom. The eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime was also devoid of any semblance of an urban policy to address the lingering and festering problems of the inner cities in Black America.
With Barack Obama in office, Black America, particularly the dispossessed believed that we were in store for “change we could believe in.” Political analysts thought that Obama’s pledge to create an office of Urban Affairs would finally mean the formulation and implementation of an aggressive urban policy. Thus far, Obama has adopted a race-neutral posture in terms of policy prescriptions to address the myriad crises in Black America. When questioned about the needs of Black America, he has repeatedly said that whatever polices work for other Americans should work for Black people. This stance is not acceptable under any administration, but it is particularly egregious with a Black President who has not taken the same position with other people of color ethnic groups. As the venerable Dr. Ronald Walters points out in a recent column, “If it is a ‘mistake’ to think about ethnic segments of the country in his governance, then why did he sign an executive order mandating that heads of executive agencies affect consultation with Indian tribal governments, or sign an executive order mandating the increased participation of Asians and Pacific Islanders in federal programs, or say in a speech to the Hispanic Caucus this year that when their unemployment number reached over 10 percent that was not just a problem for Hispanics, ‘it was a problem for the nation.” No such statement has been made by the White House about the 15.7 percent rate of official black unemployment.”
Just like other Democratic administrations, it appears that President Obama has decided to cater to and appease other groups to hold them in the ranks while ignoring the issues and concerns of the Party’s most loyal constituency – Black voters. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, there are ominous signs that Black leaders are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Symbols without substance will not fulfill the needs and dreams of the dispossessed. It is time to pressure President Obama to address the crisis of chronic joblessness and poverty devastating Black communities across this country.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.