By Noël Gordon, University of Michigan
This Sunday, President Obama is scheduled to give remarks in anticipation of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Standing above him will be a 30-foot-tall granite statue of King, the inspiration for which came from an oft forgotten line in Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The image is sure to be a powerful one. But it will also be a stark reminder of just how much the president has yet to do on behalf of the African-American community.
Race has loomed heavily over the Obama administration these past three years. The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod are just two incidents that immediately spring to mind whenever I begin thinking about this administration’s handling of race relations in America. Both situations were handled irresponsibly and haphazardly in my opinion.
Nevertheless, my biggest problem with the administration has almost nothing to do with its poor communication skills. Nor does it have anything to do with its unwillingness to take on Tea Party Republicans who unapologetically use racial dog whistling as if it’s going out of style. No, the main issue I have with the Obama administration when it comes to dealing with issue of race has everything to do with how it approaches problem-solving in the Black community.
As I understand it, the Obama administration believes that implementing race-neutral policies helps all racial minorities evenly. This sincerely held belief comes from the top-down, with Obama even admitting as much in a December 2009 interview when he argued that he, “can’t just pass laws that say I’m helping black folks. I’m the President of the entire (emphasis added) United States. What I can do is make sure that I’m passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”
While I wholeheartedly disagree with the president on this issue, I could at least sympathize with him if he applied this logic consistently throughout presidency. But such has not been the case.
It will be bittersweet for me to watch the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell occur later this year when I know the unemployment rate among African-Americans will likely remain in the double digits. I know this because it has been incredibly difficult celebrating the Administration’s decision to halt the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible immigrant youth in this country when HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections continue to devastate many of the communities wherein I grew up.
As I look around and bear witness to all these wonderful progressive victories, I can’t help but think of an analogy once used by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson: Sure the tide is helping to save many of the people stranded out at sea. But let’s not forget that some people are drowning simply because they never had a boat to begin with. Put simply, let’s not forget that “helping all people” means helping black people, too. I know this seems counter-intuitive to some and politically risky to others. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right thing to do. And to critics who say it simply can’t be done, look no further than New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative—a program that isn’t perfect by any means, but acknowledges two important truths about our society: The one-size-fits-all approach often doesn’t. And remedying racism isn’t by definition reverse discrimination.
I’m not the first African-American to raise these concerns. And like many of you, I will be tuning in Sunday to hear the president’s remarks. But unless President Obama acknowledges the uniquely harsh realities facing so many minorities in this country, Dr. King’s Dream for this nation will forever be just that: a dream.