In a New York Times essay in late October 2012, Columbia University political scientist Frederick Harris wrote that Barack Obama’s presidency has “marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality.” A few days after the election, another African American scholar, Cornel West, appeared on a Democracy Now radio show segment and called the president a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” The charge that Barack Obama has ignored African Americans is not uncommon in some quarters of black America; radio host Tavis Smiley, who appeared with West on Democracy Now, has long made this argument. And we can expect to hear even more such critiques now that the president is unconstrained by the politics of reelection.
In the post-recession economy, blacks have fared worse than any other racial group, and the black-white wealth gap is more pronounced now than at any time since people started collecting data on it twenty-five years ago. As one University of Pennsylvania political scientist has discovered, Obama, at least in the first two years of his presidency, talked about race less than any other Democratic president since 1961. Trayvon Martin aside, Obama has self-consciously avoided references to his own skin color, a subject he explored extensively in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father. But precisely by focusing so narrowly on race—and by dismissing the administration’s vitally important race-neutral policies, which have disproportionately helped African Americans—Obama’s critics have lost sight of the tremendous, if quiet, racial progress that’s occurred under his watch.
A case study helps illustrate the point. Youngstown, Ohio, is 45 percent black, and among the poorest cities in America. But a glance at Youngstown in the Obama era, where unemployment has actually dipped five points in four years, offers a window into the president’s outsized influence on middle- and low-income African Americans.
Take Tammi Shadd, a thirty-two-year-old single mother who lost her job at a health clinic in February 2012 due to federal budget cuts. After a few months searching for work, she was hired in June at Delphi Packard Electric in neighboring Warren, where she makes automotive parts. For that, Shadd credits Obama’s 2009 rescue of General Motors, which revived the company’s moribund Lordstown plant nearby—on which Delphi, in turn, depends for 60 percent of its business. At the height of the auto crisis, when the Lordstown plant eliminated two of its three shifts and laid off 2,600 workers, Delphi followed suit. A year after the rescue, both plants were humming again. Shadd estimates that 65 percent of Delphi’s manufacturing employees are black. (It’s unclear how many of Lordstown’s workers are black, but African Americans make up 14 percent of U.S. automotive workers as a whole, just slightly more than their share of the general population.)
It’s unsurprising that working-class blacks in a midwestern industrial area would profit from the auto bailout, but Shadd and her family have benefited from other Obama policies as well. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or the stimulus, the administration increased Pell Grant funding by $15.6 billion, raising the maximum award by $800. After another boost in 2010, that figure will continue to rise over the next decade. As a result, Shadd, who studies forensic science part-time at Youngstown State University, says she now has $300 to $400 extra at her disposal each semester to take more classes and buy books. And she’s in a better starting position than many; according to Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal, more than three million low-income students were able to attend college only thanks to the Pell extension. About a quarter of Pell recipients are African American.
Shadd’s widowed mother,Â Brenda Kimble, who runs a limousine service and is also enrolled part-time at YSU, says she has benefited not only from Pell Grants but also from Obama’s 2010 student loan overhaul, which enabled the federal government to begin lending directly to students, while fixing and lowering interest rates. Without the reform, “I probably would not have been able to go [to school],” says Kimble, who enrolled in an education program in 2008. Kimble’s adult son, who had already graduated from college by 2008, gained from the stimulus in a different way. After losing his job, he was hired to work at a stimulus-funded job-training facility, where he now works full-time.
Elsewhere in Youngstown, a homelessness prevention program funded by the stimulus provided 1,275 people with rent assistance, keeping all of them off the street. There are nearly twice as many poor blacks as poor whites in Youngstown, so it is safe to assume that the city’s homeless population is mostly black. (According to Grunwald, the stimulus helped house 1.2 million at-risk Americans during the recession.) A local housing authority also modernized two public housing facilities, both of which are 95 percent black, using stimulus grants to make them more livable and energy efficient.
Just outside of town, the state used $20 million in stimulus funds to improve transportation infrastructure near a steel plant. The steelmaker later expanded the plant, creating 350 jobs. Youngstown is the seat of Mahoning County, which received $217 million in stimulus money, a plurality of that going toward public education and other municipal government functions. And that too has likely disproportionately helped the region’s blacks. Around the country, about 20 percent of state and local government employees who lost their jobs after the financial crisis were black. “If we did not have the stimulus and the auto bailout,” says Kirk Noden of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Committee, “Youngstown would be on its last dying breath.”
In the Times essay, Harris wrote that in his second term Obama should advocate for “targeted universalism,” which he defined as “job-training and housing programs that are open to all, but are concentrated in low-income, minority communities.” If Harris had studied the stimulus more carefully, or poked around cities like Youngstown, he would have learned that Obama has done precisely that. Indeed, certain benefits of “targeted universalism” have already been reaped: tax credits, unemployment benefits, and expansions of food stamps kept six million people out of poverty in 2009 and seven million in 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In both years, more than 1.3 million of those beneficiaries were black. And that calculation doesn’t include the vast majority of stimulus provisions, such as the $87 billion expansion of Medicaid.
As many have pointed out, insisting that “Hey, things could have been worse” is not the most inspiring or convincing defense of one’s policies. And that’s part of the reason Obama’s critics, including Harris, have given the stimulus such short shrift. That said, it’s the policies that have yet to fully kick in that may do the most for African Americans. When the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act take effect in 2014, four million more African Americans will have health insurance, raising the proportion of blacks with health insurance from 78 percent to more than 90 percent, according to a November Health Affairs study. Nearly a quarter of all African Americans have the sort of preexisting medical conditions that Obamacare forbids insurers from discriminating against. Moreover, Obamacare will help shore up the finances of the thousands of municipal government and nonprofit hospitals that have been losing money treating the uninsured—hospitals that also happen to be a major source of employment for African Americans.
On a smaller scale, several of Obama’s primary and secondary education initiatives also will likely have a positive long-term effect on African Americans. The administration’s much-praised Race to the Top education reform competition has provided close to $5 billion extra for America’s schools. The stimulus gave $13 billion more to low-performing Title I schools, most of which serve minority students. The Education Department has delivered money to launch a project called Promise Neighborhoods, a holistic, “cradle to career” approach to education. Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the project has already dispensed one-year planning grants of $500,000 each to thirty-six neighborhoods, all but a few of which are predominantly African American or minority. Five neighborhoods have been granted about $30 million each over the course of five years.
One of those, the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, is located in the city’s impoverished East Side, where about 72 percent of residents are black. At full capacity, it plans on providing education, health care, mentoring, and housing relief to about 12,000 residents. In Minneapolis, the Northside Achievement Zone, which is about 50 percent black and also received one of the more generous grants, saw its yearly budget increase from $1.3 million to $6.9 million starting this year. “The grant has allowed us to put such energy and momentum into something that was going to take a much, much longer time to build,” says NAZ President Sondra Samuels. The program, Samuels says, largely depends on a group of employees called “NAZ connectors” who interact on a regular basis with many of the zone’s 2,200 families to help them stay engaged with their children’s and their own education. Before the grant arrived, Samuels was stretched thin, with only four NAZ connectors; now she has twenty-four.
Obama’s Department of Justice has also made meaningful strides in advancing racial justice. Some are high profile, like challenges to restrictive state voting laws. Others are less celebrated but still profound; the department has cracked down on prison rape, for instance, and reversed the Bush administration’s practice of hiring conservative lawyers with little experience in civil rights law to the Civil Rights Division. Legislatively, the Obama administration has made penalties for crack and powder cocaine more equitable. All of these are examples of targeted universalism.
Nor has the Obama administration failed to deliver for African Americans in more traditional race-specific ways. It directed an additional $2.55 billion to historically black colleges and universities, and between 2009 and 2011 it more than doubled the amount of federal contracts and capital available to minority-owned businesses than had been available in the previous three years. The Obama administration also delivered $1.25 billion in legal claims to black farmers who were discriminated against by federal loan officers in the 1980s and ’90s. But these policies, while symbolically important, are footnotes to Obama’s bigger, broader accomplishments.
Last year, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, an early proponent of race-neutral policies benefiting blacks, told the journalist Paul Tough that Obama “had done more for lower-income Americans than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson.” It follows, somewhat intuitively, that he’s also accomplished more for African Americans than any president in a half century. All he’s missing is his own Howard University “race speech” to show for it.
A few days after the election, Mitt Romney delivered a postmortem assessment to his donors that Obama had won over women, minorities, and young voters by showering them with “gifts.” The comment was crude and offensive, but in a sense, it demonstrated a better understanding of Obama’s first term than that of West, Smiley, and some of the president’s other progressive critics. African Americans may have suffered during Obama’s first term as they were hit hard by the effects of the Great Recession. But it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that Obama has not been looking out for black America, as ordinary African Americans well know and demonstrated in the polls last November.