President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, titled “Turn the Page,” made it clear: He is no lame duck. With an ambitious agenda and less than two years to complete it, time is running out for him to take on the issues in urban communities.
The midterm elections cost Democrats the U.S. Senate, but Obama was optimistic about the future of America. Black Americans, who gave the largest percent of their votes (97 percent) to re-elect him, did not see much in his speech that directly addressed their issues. The president spoke forcefully about protecting labor unions, gay rights, the environment and even intellectual property, but he failed to clearly address concerns within urban communities, especially the killing of unarmed Black males, unemployment and re-segregated schools.
“The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama said. “The state of the union is strong.” However, the state of the union between the president and urban communities may be fraying around the edges. Black support dipped in light of the president’s tepid response over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.
Even in his speech, the president walked a neutral line. He created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which will present its findings in March. Despite the six months of uprisings that led to creation of the task force, there was only one line about it in his 17-page speech. “We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” he said. “We can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed.”
He then quickly changed direction and also argued for the other side, saying, “Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of the shift.”
Obama ran for re-election with a focus on the middle class, for which he has been severely criticized by Cornel West, the Black theologian and author. In his speech, the president explained that middle-class economics means helping folks afford child care, college, health care, a home and retirement.
The president proposed paid sick leave and maternity leave, which will benefit all communities. He said he wants to strengthen labor unions, increase the minimum wage and invest in technology. However, all of these job-based proposals assume some level of employment. Unemployment among African-Americans is nearly twice that of whites.
Even with an economy that is growing and creating jobs at the “fastest pace since 1999,” which Obama boasted in his speech, Blacks are lagging behind. Black unemployment is 11.4 percent, while the national unemployment rate is about 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Blacks must still contend with racism in employment, housing and education.
Obama pointed out that “for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together.” Yet, a disproportionate number of Black men, women and children are in the prison system.
The president proposed free community college. However, re-segregated American public schools are under-educating Black and Latino children, making them ill-prepared for college, free or otherwise. “There is no Black America or white America. There is only the United States of America,” he said, ignoring an America still divided over race.
The president felt comfortable saying we must “speak out against anti-Semitism,” “reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims” and “condemn the persecution of women, or religious minority, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender” without arguing the other side.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama are part of an era coming to a close. “Tonight, we turn the page,” he said.
Will millions of Black men, women and children move forward with him or watch his presidency end from the sidelines? Time is running out for this president to create opportunities for Black America that can result in a shared optimism about the future.