For blacks, empathy trumps the economy

To African-Americans, President Obama just gets it. [WATCH VIDEO]

Obama’s notably personal comments on Friday about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, and on race in America, struck a chord. They vividly underlined the fact that, for the first time, the person in the Oval Office has lived an African-American experience.


To black supporters, that is more important than Obama’s inability to narrow racial inequalities during his four and a half years in office, something that has frustrated members of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a former head of the black caucus, was in the middle of a phone interview with The Hill when Obama appeared at the White House briefing room podium to address the raw feelings exposed by the “not guilty” verdict on the man who had fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. 

Pausing to listen to an office television for several minutes, Rangel said: “I don’t see how a person not-of-color could possibly do the job that he’s doing.” 

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said, “I was glad that he spoke about it in a very personal way. I thought it was very powerful conversation. He could really make a significant impact in terms of race relations and in terms of not sweeping this under the carpet.” 

For the vast bulk of the African-American political class, the sense of identification and empathy with the nation’s first black president has almost always taken primacy over whatever disappointments they have with his record. 

The disappointment is perhaps strongest on the economy, since black people are worse off now than they were when Obama first took office, according to virtually every major indicator. 

They have fared worse than whites throughout Obama’s time in the White House. Their plight, therefore, cannot be pinned on the general malaise that has afflicted the nation since the financial crash. 

In January 2009, the month Obama took office, black unemployment stood at 12.7 percent, outstripping white unemployment, which stood at 7.1 percent.

The national unemployment rate and the rate among whites have both ticked down since then, but African-American joblessness has actually worsened.  It now stands at 13.7 percent, while the white rate is just 6.6 percent. 

Statistics for home ownership tell the same story. The most recent figures, which cover the first quarter of 2013, show that 43.1 percent of African-American families own their homes, a decline of 3 percentage points since Obama came to power. 

White home ownership also declined over the same period, but the fall (from 74.7 percent to 73.4 percent) was only about half of that experienced by black people. 

The pattern repeats itself on income. Adjusted for inflation, white per capita income declined by only a negligible amount ($36) from 2008 to 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. During the same period, black per capita income fell by $502. 

Back in 2005, the first year of President George W. Bush’s second term, black per capita income adjusted for inflation was $801 higher than it is  in the most recent figures. 

Most black liberals lay the blame for the widening gaps at the door of history, and what they see as present-day Republican obstructionism. But Obama has not been immune from black criticism. 

Academic Cornel West and broadcaster Tavis Smiley have leveled especially strong charges. Back in 2011, West accused Obama of being a “black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”

Obama’s remarks on Martin evidently did not alleviate Smiley’s dissatisfaction. 

“Took POTUS almost a week to show up and express mild outrage. And still, it was as weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid,” he tweeted soon after Obama left the briefing room. 

But if Smiley and West have become the standard-bearers of black dissent, there has been a conspicuous lack of other prominent people rallying to that flag.

Rev. Al Sharpton, the activist and MSNBC anchor, has been among Obama’s staunchest defenders. 

“Do people want rhetoric to make us feel better or action that makes our lives better?” he asked in a phone interview with The Hill.

Many people argue that because African-Americans have always been poorer than whites, it is natural that they would suffer more sharply in the Great Recession and its aftermath. 

Sharpton offered a more specific observation, noting that black Americans have tended to find proportionately more employment in the public sector than the private sector, in part because of discrimination from private employers. It was therefore virtually certain that blacks would be harder hit by the succession of cuts and fiscal crises that pared public sector jobs. 

He added that a number of the White House’s top priorities, from the stimulus to ObamaCare, served to help poorer people most, and that many African-Americans benefitted. 

“Have they done it in the names of African-Americans and Latinos, like I would do? No. But would that way have produced a more positive result? Probably less positive. The right would have said, ‘They’re just doing it to help them.’ ” 

Among black progressives, there is also a wariness about fueling the fires of Republicans and conservatives who are seen as too often being personally disrespectful toward the president.

“Many progressives and Democrats will avoid like the plague giving ammunition to the professional Obama haters and the GOP,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author.

Still, he added, “It would be totally irresponsible not to raise principled, political criticisms and offer constructive criticisms, whether it be on his drone policy or urging him to do more for the black poor.” 

Black lawmakers are highly reluctant to voice those criticisms, however. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) repeatedly criticized Obama in 2011 for being insufficiently concerned with blacks’ economic circumstances. But she was an exception rather than the rule  — and has largely muted any expressions of negative recently.

“I was thinking you maybe wanted me to say bad things about the president,” Rangel noted at one point in an interview with The Hill, making plain he had no intention of doing so. 

He acknowledged merely that any disappointment he felt was “only based on my expectations. I know that nobody else understands the problems we face as a people better than he does.”