For African Americans, the election of Barack Obama was part triumph, part miracle.
The triumph was the culmination of more than a half-century of struggle to gain access to the ballot and create political space within the once-hostile Democratic Party for a mobilized Black electorate. The miracle was that the son of an African father and white American mother, virtually unknown just four years before and carrying a name primed to trigger the Islamophobia and xenophobia of fellow Americans like none in our history, actually became the 44th president of the United States. The end of that triumphant, miraculous era means several things to Black Americans.
It means that Black Americans will no longer be able to take for granted that a young and elegant, sophisticated and unapologetically Black family resides, presides and represents this country from the secular sanctuary of the White House; though never again can it be denied that they can and did. For many Black Americans, the mourning has already begun.
But it also means that any opportunity to draw from this most historic president concrete concessions to the still plaintive cries of injustice and lack from the body of African Americans has passed into history. As we prepare to draw the curtain on the Obama era, African Americans remain well behind their white counterparts on nearly every measure of health, wealth, education and even physical longevity.
According to the Census Bureau, as of 2014, African Americans earn 59 cents on the dollar compared to white Americans (Hispanics earn 70 cents on the dollar), a disparity that hasn’t changed much since the 1970s.
According to the Brookings Institute, Black children born into the bottom fifth of household income distribution will still be there at age 40; and even Blacks born into the middle class have a seven in 10 chance of falling into the bottom two quintiles by the time they are adults.
The Great Recession stripped Black households of their already meager wealth, dropping the median from $19,200 in 2007 to $11,000 by 2013, a figure that’s one-thirteenth that of white households.
In education, Black students face lower high school graduation rates (71 percent versus 86.6 percent for white students and 76 percent for Hispanics) and dropout rates that are five times that of white teenagers.
Even before high school, Black students are more likely to attend segregated schools than at any time since the 1950s. Black students make up just 16 percent of the public school population, but the average Black student attends a public school that is 50 percent Black and that falls in the 37th percentile for test score results. Meanwhile, the average white student attends a school in the 60th test score percentile.
On these and other measures, including life expectancy, contraction of fatal illness, arrest and incarceration, rates of high blood pressure and other stress-induced illnesses, Black Americans remain behind.
And of course, the criminal justice system continues to target African Americans at an alarming rate, leaving Black Americans more likely to be jailed and more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white Americans who use marijuana at the same rates; and according to a 2015 Guardian study, Black teens and men ages 15-34 were five times more likely to be shot and killed by police as their white male counterparts in 2015.
Of course, the news isn’t all bleak.
The Affordable Care Act improved healthcare access for all Americans, but has had a disproportionate affect on African Americans, dropping the rate of uninsured from 17.2 percent in 2013 to 12.7 percent at the end of 2014. Also, the Black unemployment rate has been cut from a peak of 16.6 percent in April 2010 to a still high, but markedly improved 10.9 percent today.
Black political participation has soared since the 2008 election, surpassing that of white Americans with Obama’s re-election in 2012, and Black voters have proven determined to persevere despite increasingly aggressive voter suppression efforts by states in the wake of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
But with so many disparities and ongoing gaps in attaining the fruits of full equality, Black Americans face the prospect of pressing the next president for the kinds of targeted solutions that were rarely demanded of Obama himself. Even when the demand did come, particularly from the Congressional Black Caucus, he declined to give way.
Besides My Brother’s Keeper, the president has largely rejected the notion of targeted programs to alleviate Black suffering. Black America was by and large reticent to challenge him, whether out of fear that it would aid his most vociferous enemies or out of a desire to not add to his burden as the first Black president.
Going forward, and having secured two terms for Obama, in part on the strength of 72 percent turnout by Black women, that seems likely to change.
The next president is likely to face a much more “radical ask” from Black America on economic development, educational progress and political opportunity. Questions like: where are the Black governors, senators and other statewide officials in development by the Democratic Party and why there isn’t a more robust Black leadership class among Republicans, not to mention the potential for one to three open seats on the Supreme Court, are likely to move to the front burner as the political season wears on and a new president is sworn in.
Whether the next president is a Democrat or Republican, Black leadership will likely be pressed as never before to deliver on the “hope floor” laid by the election of the first Black president. Those demands will come not just from traditional civic and political leaders, but also from an emerging class of more radical young voices, primed by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and delivered to political organizing by the candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
If Hillary Clinton emerges as the next president, she and political leaders up and down the political line – from federal to state offices – will face a special burden to make good on the seeding of the soil for Black advancement during the Obama era.
In short, the Age of Hope is poised to give way to the Era of Radical Demands for Change.
Joy-Ann Reid is a political analyst for MSNBC and host of “AM Joy.” This essay first appeared as part of The National Urban League’s 2016 State of Black America report.