President Barack Obama will join members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other political heavyweights at the group’s annual Phoenix Awards Dinner during its legislative conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Obama, the dinner’s keynote speaker, made waves during the same event in 2011 at the height of the CBC’s demands that Obama do more about the economic woes of African-Americans, when he told the group to “stop complaining” and get to work with him.
But those were the bad old days of Obama’s first term, when black members of Congress echoed the frustration and disappointment of their constituents, in districts that bore the brunt of the economic crisis. Obama’s second term has offered an opportunity for the president and the CBC to get back on the good foot.
The president’s responses to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman–his articulation of African-Americans’ pain–recast the community’s perception of Obama as tone-deaf and absent on black cultural issues.
Still, the economic forecast for blacks remains dismal. And a range of other issues affecting many African-Americans–and millions of other Americans, for that matter–continues to fester. Here are eight key issues the president should address.
This year marked the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While much has changed for African-Americans, progress has remained slow. The black-white economic and employment gap has remained wide and largely unchanged over the last half-century. In 1963 the average annual unemployment rate for blacks was 10.9%, compared with 5% for whites. Today, the unemployment rate for blacks remains about double that of whites, at 12.6 for blacks and 6.6 for whites.
The unemployment rate is just one indicator of the challenges that black Americans face. The income and wealth gap also continues to expand.
Stand Your Ground laws
The acquittal of Zimmerman this summer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager sparked nationwide protests. Much of the anger was directed at Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which give wide discretion in the use of deadly force and initially gave Zimmerman legal cover from prosecution.
In the fallout of the verdict, both Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama came out against such laws. Days after Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama suggested that it was time to further examine such laws.
“I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama said. “And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”
Since then, protests around Stand Your Ground laws have grown. One group of activists, the Dream Defenders, occupied the Florida governor’s office for 31 days while demanding legislative hearings on the law.
Gun Violence /Gun Legislation
Curbing gun violence and gun deaths remains a top priority for many CBC members, particularly those who represent urban and inner city districts. Following a number of high profile killings, including that of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago honor student gunned down a week after she marched in Obama’s second inaugural parade, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama made public overtures for young people to put down the guns.
But activists and the parents of children lost to gun violence across the country want the Obama administration to keep pushing for tighter gun laws and additional resources to curb gun violence in the communities that suffer from it most. After a bloody Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, local congressional members called an emergency summit to develop practical ideas they might be able to offer up to Congress. Little came from the summit, but it did let voters know that their members of Congress were serious about keeping urban gun violence on Washington’s radar.
The administration’s push earlier this year for new federal gun control legislation was stalled by congressional Republicans and the gun lobby. But with yet another mass shooting–this time at the Washington Navy Yard earlier this week–and the shooting of 13 people including a 3-year-old boy in Chicago on Thursday, the momentum may be there to enact gun safety reform.
In major cities across the country, including Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, school districts are shuttering public schools in mostly African-American communities. Thousands of black and Latino youth are being forced from their neighborhood schools, often into unfamiliar or unwelcoming neighborhoods. Chicago closed 50 schools this year and 88% of the affected students were black. In Philadelphia, 23 schools were closed and 81% of those students affected were black. In both cities, 93% or more of the young people affected were low-income students. Opponents of the closures believe the school closings are an attack on public education, teachers unions and minority students. What ever happened to Obama’s Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans?
A recent report by the Pew Research Center suggests that African-Americans support President Obama’s signature piece of health care legislation, the 2010 Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare, at a rate three times as that of whites.
This week, Republicans have threatened to shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is fully defunded.
“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed health care law,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner. “The law is a train wreck.” As Republicans attack the law and support continues to slip among whites, the administration has doubled-down on touting its benefit to blacks.
During a meeting with African-American faith leaders in August, Obama said that an estimated 7.3 million African-Americans with private insurance now have access to expanded preventive services with no additional costs. The ACA would also allow 7 million blacks without health insurance access to quality, affordable health insurance options beginning in 2014. An attack on Obamacare can be seen as a hostile disregard for the healthcare needs of millions of blacks.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which in part required a number of states with a history of discriminatory election practices to get federal approval before changing their election laws. The Voting Rights Act was a victory for civil rights activists and African-Americans, disenfranchised for generations by southern Jim Crow laws.
Civil rights groups say the court’s ruling could undo decades of equality gains.
In response to the court’s decision, Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” and that the decision “upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
The same day the SCOTUS ruling came down, states started to advance previously prohibited voting laws. The Justice Department has said it will file a suit challenging such a move by Texas, which is moving to implement a redistricting plan and voter ID law the DOJ had deemed discriminatory.
In the 2012 election, fury at Republican voter suppression efforts helped engergize minorities, college students and other groups who turned out for Obama at high rates.
This week conservative Republicans in the House passed a bill that would cut nearly $40 billion from the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), over the next decade. The cuts could mean hardship and further food insecurity for millions of impoverished women, children and families.
There are currently nearly 49 million Americans who receive benefits under the SNAP program. Next year alone some 3.8 million could be kicked out of the program. About 17 million of those benefiting from the program are children. Another 5 million are seniors. In all, 76% of the households receiving SNAP benefits included children, seniors or the disabled, according to the USDA.
One amendment to the bill would establish a lifetime ban for convicted felons from receiving SNAP benefits; another would require that participants receive mandatory drug testing.
“There is no rational reason for them attacking poor people and women as they have,” CBC chair Marcia L. Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, told MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton earlier this week.
Opposition is growing to mandatory sentencing minimums, which have decimated African-American communities. In the meantime, though, President Obama has used his clemency powers at a historically low rate, as thousands and thousands of black men and women sit locked in American prisons via unfair drug laws and draconian sentencing rules.
According to the Department of Justice, Obama has received nearly 10,000 applications for clemency but has pardoned just 39 people and commuted one sentence.
Some African-American leaders hope Obama will be more generous in the final years of his second term. If there is any one issue in which the president could have an immediate impact, it is this one. With a wave of his pen, Obama could undo some of the mess caused by a lopsided criminal justice system.