Many people (including myself) have criticized President Obama for not sufficiently focusing on issues affecting minority communities. Black leaders have castigated Obama for not doing enough for “his people” since his tenure in the White House. I have vacillated in my opinion on how much President Obama can solely influence policy and change laws from the Oval Office. However, it disappoints me to see the continued suffering of minorities especially with our first African-American president leads our country. According to the National Journal:
- the net wealth for Black families dropped by 27.1% during the recession;
- currently, one in 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared with one in 106 white men;
- Blacks comprise 38% of inmates currently in state and federal prisons; and
- although only 13.8% of the U.S. population, African-Americans represent 27% of those living below the poverty line.
When President Obama took office, many African-Americans were hopeful that the Executive Branch of our government would look out for their best interest. Last month, following the repeal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, it was clear to African-Americans that the U.S. Supreme Court held the rights of gays and lesbians in America as more important than the rights of African-Americans. Congress continues to attempt to strike down ObamaCare and maintain an impasse on immigration reform. Congress has also stripped funding of the U.S. food stamp program while passing the Farm Bill pumping additional monies into the farm subsidy program—when was the last time you purchased produce or a cotton shirt that was grown or manufactured in the U.S.? Throughout all of the new policies and laws recently implemented by Congress, the African-American community continues to ask, “wassup with our Black president?!”
President Obama has been known to resist honing in on race-specific issues. Rather, he has chosen to focus his goals on improving the livelihood of the middle class. Obama’s specific speeches on race and blacks can be counted on one hand. In March 2008, then-presidential candidate/Senator Barak Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia titled “We The People.” The speech was prompted by a racially charged sermon by the President’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama spoke about being born “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.” He also recounted that “a lack of economic opportunity among Black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families—a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.” He referenced the word “black” thirty-nine times during his speech. African-Americans galvanized following his speech focused on race, and eight months later elected him as our first Black president.
Throughout his time in office, President Obama has continued to live up to his creed that he is the “president of all America.” As president, members of Congress have criticized him for not doing more to focus on issues affecting Black communities. His next speech on race came five years later when he addressed the graduates at Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU. Although his speech was not primarily focused on race issues, Obama touched on the topic when he said:
We’ve got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.
Two months later, President Obama was back at a podium to discuss the issue of race. Following the national fallout of the George Zimmerman verdict for shooting Trayvon Martin, Obama came to a press briefing in the White House where he gave unprepared remarks (days after putting out a lackluster statement on the incident) on being a black male in the United States. Despite all of these speeches about race, President Obama has not supported his statements with evidenced changes within the black community—or so I thought until this past Monday.
While Obama selected his cabinet for his second term in office he was chastised by the lack of minorities in leadership positions. As he named his new selections, the cabinet was gearing up to consist of fewer women and minorities than his first term. The man I elected to lead our country—TWICE was bemusing me! But, this Monday I finally saw the big picture. President Obama didn’t have to make speeches on race and overtly state that he had my back and the back of minorities in this country. He made that clear, when on December 1, 2008 he nominated his friend Eric Holder, to become the U.S. Attorney General.
Eric Holder is the 82nd U.S. Attorney General and the first African-American to hold this position. He has been criticized, chastised and held in contempt by members of Congress, and despite the reproach he has continued to hold his own and carry out his duties as the highest-ranking government attorney in the United States. When the Supreme Court overturned a portion of the Voting Rights Act, Holder ensured that the Justice Department would use “every tool at [their] disposal to stand against discrimination.” Holder is leading the charge on the Justice Department’s challenge of the South Carolina voter ID law and a Texas redistricting plan.
In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Eric Holder reminded us that the tragedy provided us with an opportunity to revisit the dialogue on U.S. race issues through a speech to the NAACP. Despite the racially charged conversations that were occurring following the Zimmerman trial, Holder showed no hesitation in raising his concerns on the role race played in the tragedy. He vowed to take a closer look at the impact of state “Stand Your Ground” laws and described the conversation he was forced to have with his fifteen-year-old son:
Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways…. As important as it was, I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.
On Monday, Holder revealed his overhaul of the Justice Department’s approach to reforming certain criminal laws by cutting mandatory minimum drug sentences. Holder addressed the unwarranted disparities that such laws created between minority and white communities. He acknowledged the role that the government played in exacerbating the problems related to poverty, criminality and incarceration in many minority communities. There is no denying that addressing these drug sentences will have a greater impact on minority offenders. Holder is not only an attorney who seeks to reform the injustices of Blacks and Latinos; he has aimed to ensure that no minority group faces injustices at the hands of the government. For example, Holder decided to cease the DOJ’s defense of the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act nearly two years before the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional.
Unlike the role that our President plays, Eric Holder is at the helm of our federal judicial system and has the ability to control the manner in which our laws are enforced. He recognizes that the method for prosecuting certain crimes and the sentencing criteria has disproportionately impacted minorities. This may lessen his chances of every gaining a seat on the country’s highest court; however, Holder is ensuring that he leaves his mark on U.S. history. It is unclear whether President Obama knew at the time he nominated Holder to lead the Department of Justice that Holder would become his gateway to directly helping minority communities. Nevertheless, kudos to Obama for his wise selection, and for not replacing Holder in his second term. As for Attorney General Eric Holder, thank you for addressing the inequities in minority communities.