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Obama Tells Black audience ‘We’re not there yet’

28th April 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Hazel Trice Edney

( – President Barack Obama, pouncing back into campaign mode having announced his bid for re-election, told a cheering audience at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network gala last week that he will fight for jobs and education in the Black community.

“We’re making progress, but we’re not there yet,” he said in a speech at the annual “Keepers of the Dream” Gala in New York. “And I want you to know that so long as there are Americans who cannot find work I will be fighting for jobs, and so long as the gap between the wealthiest few and everybody else keeps on growing I will be fighting for opportunity. And I know you’ll be right there alongside with me.”

Though the thrill of re-electing the nation’s first Black president will no doubt excite his primary base, African-American voters, disparate and growing joblessness in Black communities around the nation will be a serious campaign hurdle for Obama. Many grassroots voters will remember his answer when asked about Black unemployment during a White House Press Conference in January 2010: “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said.

“President Obama seems afraid to address the needs of Blacks,” says David Ashley, 40, a construction worker and mechanic of Chicago, who is undecided about his vote in 2012. “Obama promised change and he didn’t give us change.”

Among a list of what he perceives as broken promises, Ashley named the deal that Obama made with Republicans late last year that reinstated President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobless rate for Blacks has consistently gravitated between 15 and 18 percent over the past two years – always twice that of whites, which has remained under the national average of about 10 percent. Last month, when the rate went down for everyone else, it went up for Blacks. Still other voters say the president has done well with the hand he was dealt.

“The mistake would have been committing to making all those things happen in a certain period of time, which was unrealistic,” says Andrea Younger, 50, an accountant from Asheville, N.C. “He had people believing he was going to have so many jobs by a certain time, and people are disappointed. I did appreciate him changing the health-care policies.”

Perhaps sensing that he must work harder for the Black vote this time around, Obama jumped in with both feet, articulating what sounded like his Black agenda in front of the friendly crowd.

“Now, what’s also true, though, is the unemployment rate for African Americans is almost double what it is for other groups. It’s also true that those with the least have been sacrificing the most during this recession,” he acknowledged. “What’s also true is that even before the recession hit, too many communities were marked by structural inequalities in health and education and employment that made it profoundly difficult for too many people to get ahead.”

He recalled Sharpton’s introduction, which mentioned how “I got my start tackling the problems of joblessness and hopelessness that afflict so many of our cities and rural communities. I got my start working to bring opportunity to neighborhoods that were full of boarded-up houses and shuttered stores, fighting to keep kids off the street, fighting to get them into school, fighting to make sure that they went on to college, fighting to make real the promise of justice in our judicial system.”

He also spoke of his administration’s enforcement of civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, reinvesting in historically Black colleges and universities and achievement gaps in elementary and secondary education, a premiere issue for Sharpton. He visited the White House with Republican Newt Gingrich early in the Obama presidency with hopes to advocate on closing the achievement gap.

Obama said little about what he might do differently in a four-year term. But, he encouraged the audience to not get “amnesia” about how the economy was failing when he came into office. He pointed to signs that it’s turning around. Those signs included the fact that the automobile is now prospering and “GM just announced that it’s going to hire back every single worker that has been laid off.”

The lively audience applauded often, including New York political royalty Rep. Charlie Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, and former Gov. David Paterson. Music icon Stevie Wonder and Martin Luther King III were also acknowledged by the President.

The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the National Action Network. Sharpton’s style has somewhat mellowed over the years since the New York police brutality cases of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, which he brought to national attention. Obama saluted Sharpton’s “commitment to fight injustice and inequality here in New York City and across America. And that’s not only a testament to Reverend Sharpton. It’s a testament to all of you who are here tonight. I want to commend you for the work that you’ve done over the last two decades to lift up not only the African-American community but the broader American family. That’s what you’re about,” he said to applause.

Sharpton and Obama first met during the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, where they both spoke. Sharpton was a presidential candidate and Obama was then a candidate for the U. S. Senate.

His rise to the presidency started at the convention. Analysts predict he will likely win again – but only if he is able to rally Blacks and the youth base that he had before. Mobilization through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, will also be key.

Stephanie Pounds, 19, of Kansas City, says she is poised to vote in a presidential election for the first time next year. The Howard University theatre arts student says she is hopeful:

“I think he spent this term appeasing people,” she said. “I think Obama can make a change, but this term went by way too fast. I can see Obama making some definite changes in 2012 and on if he makes it back in.”

Obama is even more hopeful: “If you’re as committed as I am to continuing to change this country for the better, if you feel the same determination that I do to tackle the problems that haven’t yet met, if you’re still willing to believe in what we can do together, I am absolutely confident we will do what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years. We will build an America where the ideals of justice and equality and opportunity are alive and well, and we will reclaim the American Dream in our time.”

Briana Younger and Jewell Nelson contributed to this story.

This story originally published in the April 18, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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