During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when many poor and black residents of New Orleans continued to struggle for survival, rapper Kanye West angrily commented that the current president “[didn’t] care about black people.” A decade later, and the sentiment of the White House doesn’t seem to have changed much. In spite of the overwhelming support given by black Americans to Obama during his candidacy, it often seems that he’s less than willing to return to the favor.
Take, for example, the execution of Troy Davis.
Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 for the shooting of a Georgia police officer- a crime which he denied until his dying day. In the years following his conviction, greater and greater evidence arose suggesting that Davis was indeed innocent. By the time of his death, seven of the nine key witnesses who had helped convict recanted their testimony, many citing police coercion. Of the two remaining witnesses, one reported that he was no longer certain and the other was believed by many to have been the actual gunman.
Support for Davis’s release poured in from across the globe, even gaining such notable supporters as former president Carter, archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former head of the FBI, the head of the NAACP, and congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis.
In spite of the worldwide campaign on his behalf, Davis was executed on a late September night in 2011- the one man in the world who could’ve saved him not even lifting a finger. In spite of the rumors (swiftly discredited) that Obama had reached out to the state of Georgia, the president, by all accounts, sat idly by during what many labelled a modern-day lynching, the White House only confirming that the president would not involve himself.
While the president’s apologists have argued that the president could only have ordered a federal investigation into the case (which would have delayed the execution and quite possibly exonerated Davis), doing so would have touched off a lengthy battle over the division between state and federal authority– something the president has asserted he is unwilling to do (also his excuse for dragging his feet on gay marriage and other rights).
At least, that’s the claim.
When public opinion seems to favor the victim, Obama has been quick to sail with the wind. Take the 2012 shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, for example. With much of public sentiment behind the gunned-down teen, Obama publicly declared that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” and “Trayvon Martin could have been me.”
Those are some big guns there, but none that Obama would wind up sticking to.
During the recent shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, in a case far more clear-cut than the Martin shooting (which was itself pretty dang clear), Obama’s comments have again been highly cautious. And as far as the question of use of executive power goes, we’re talking about a guy who has a kill list. American citizens have been executed without a trial or any hope of due process. Clearly the man doesn’t have an issue with playing fast and loose when it comes to using his authority.
So how are we all supposed to take that? It seems more and more (to more and more) that Obama isn’t especially concerned with the plight of black Americans- except when there’s perhaps some political points to be gained. Of course, it’s not just a question of the justice system, it’s seemingly incessant kowtowing to the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor (many of whom are people of color). Things have gotten so bad that even progressive-darling Elizabeth Warren has come straight out and lambasting the president, saying of the administration “They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over…” Likewise, lawyer and Washington Post contributor Joy Freeman-Coulbary has accused Obama of “apathy” on black issues.
Again, the president’s defenders might argue that the man has more on his plate, and that his chief concerns have not been civil liberties and the betterment of the poor and working class, but rather foreign “threats” and the economy. Let’s assume that’s true (I don’t believe it is, but just for the sake of argument, let’s say it is). In both elections, Obama received monumental support from the black population. One would imagine that with such backing, the president might at least try to return the favor. Rather, racial tensions in the nation seemed to have intensified, with shootings, false imprisonment, and a host of disparities in the news over and over. To say that things are as bad as they would have been 30 years ago would be a lie- but so would be saying things are going alright. Where I work, poverty and unemployment remain rampant problems, and the Democrat politicians who I’ve seen come through seem to demand that black community rally around the president, rather than promising any support on his part. Of course, some would argue that all of this pales in comparison to Obama’s backsliding on promises of immigration reform for the Hispanic community, facing widespread ire and even hecklers. Obama’s response? Yet more insistence that he will (eventually) make good on his promises, demanding for the time being the continued support of the very people his policies have been hurting, stating “When opponents are out there saying who knows what, I’m going to need you to have my back.”
So again, we’re faced with the question of whether or not Obama cares about black Americans. With two years left in his presidency, I think that question remains to be answered.