CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In this banking center walloped by the Great Recession, where unemployment just hit a 20-year high and as many as one in three black people are out of work, blacks could easily be frustrated with President Barack Obama‘s insistence that a rising economic tide for all will lift African-American boats.
Yet despite surging discontent among some black advocates over Obama’s refusal to specifically target rising black unemployment, it’s hard to find average black folks here who disagree with the president’s approach.
“He has been addressing the black agenda as far as health care, education, all that,” said Tamera Gomillion, a bill collector who has been struggling to pay her own bills.
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“It took eight years to get into this mess, so it’s going to take time to get us out,” she said. “I voted for him, and I’ll do it again.”
The drumbeat for Obama to embrace a black agenda grew loudest Saturday, when PBS host Tavis Smiley convened a public meeting of prominent black activists and intellectuals in Chicago to demand policies tailored to the needs of blacks who have been hit disproportionately hard by the recession.
Obama has refused from the beginning of his candidacy to separate the solutions to black America’s economic problems from the country’s at large. After he settled into his presidency, this stance placed him at odds with activists and the Congressional Black Caucus who once were the voice of black America.
But now, “nobody can go to Obama and say, ‘This is what African-Americans want,’” said David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
He called the debate an “awkward moment” for the CBC: “All of a sudden, there’s someone else who represents African-Americans more, if you go by what African-Americans say, than they do.”
That certainly seemed to be the case in the Charlotte metropolitan area, which is 30 percent black and had a 12.8 percent overall unemployment rate in January. Charlotte’s huge black turnout was crucial to Obama barely winning North Carolina in 2008, the first Democrat to do so since 1976.
Interviews with two dozen African-Americans last week revealed common themes: Obama is correct to focus on the needs of all Americans. It’s too soon to condemn him for inaction. His emphasis on health care and education will greatly help blacks. Black people should take responsibility for solving their own problems.
And when 2012 comes, they plan to vote for Obama again.
“He’s got bigger fish to fry” than a black agenda, said Beth James Davis, a marketing executive, as she ate dinner in a restaurant near downtown with her husband and two young children. “I’m not saying our fish isn’t big, but he’s got more important battles.”
Shenika Simpson was watching her granddaughter at a playground in her Grier Heights neighborhood, which she described as “drug infested.” An unemployed single mother, Simpson said that Obama “can’t just jump in the chair and fix everything within a year.”
Should Obama do more to specifically help black people? “I feel he is doing it,” Simpson said. “It’s always going to be hard to find jobs. You got to go to school, graduate, do stuff to make it today. You can’t depend on them to do it for you.”
Gianna Butterfield, a graphic designer, said that while groups such as the Black Caucus used to speak for African-Americans, “Now we have Obama, and he seems to be speaking a little better.”
South of downtown, outside of a convenience store where cigarette butts littered the ground near a “No Loitering” sign, military retiree James Norris said Obama “can’t do nothing for one nationality over another.”
Black people “got to blame something on something,” Norris said. “It ain’t something, it’s your (expletive) self.”
The mayor of Charlotte, Anthony Foxx, was in tune with the mood of his constituents.
“Do I feel pressure to bring unemployment numbers down? Absolutely,” he said. “But I feel that pressure for everyone I represent. In terms of a black agenda, it’s hard to peel out the black community from the overall things that we’re doing.”
He said Obama should get credit for many policies that helped blacks. “There are schools not closed, bellies that are not empty because of that support,” he said. “People don’t think about the disaster that didn’t happen.”
One of the major policies advocates want is direct job creation, which is federal funding of salaries. The Obama administration has resisted these calls — yet $10 million in stimulus money has managed to trickle down to the Charlotte area for that exact purpose.
The Opportunity Project will fund up to 500 jobs for low-income parents with at least one dependent living at home. The Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services secured the grant after Darrell Cunningham, a community resources director, discovered grant money in the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Most of the applicants to the program are black, Cunningham said. He’s satisfied with Obama’s approach to helping African-Americans, “because he’s pushing the system to do better.”
Not everyone supports Obama’s approach. Patrick Graham, president of the local Urban League, estimated that black unemployment in the area was 2½ times the overall rate. (Official statistics are not broken down by race.)
“If we don’t pay attention, we will see these problems continue,” he said.
Gyasi Foluke, a retired black studies professor and Air Force officer, said there was some value to Obama’s “universal approach,” but it would not address the long-standing inequities between blacks and whites.
“We are 400 years behind,” Foluke said. “The universal approach has a fundamental flaw: You can never catch up.”
“But it is clever politics,” Foluke continued. “If you have a black agenda, you cannot get elected in this country. … I’m not against Obama. I voted for him, and I’ll vote for him again. What choice do I have?”