A recent White House summit with Black elected officials, senior legislative staff, business leaders was the equivalent of a crash course in Matrix reality. Morpheus offers protagonist Neo the opportunity to take a blue pill so he can return to fictional reality where he can believe what he wants – or a red pill of keep-it-reality where robots have really crashed the Earth party.
Using that twisted analogy, blue pill takers who say President Obama hasn’t done enough for Black America can continue believing the President could easily open up a Department of African Americans.
The red pill reality, though, is pure politics. If the President designs programs specifically for African Americans, his opponents would pounce all over him, filing lawsuits up and down the federal circuits.
He’s damned both ways. But, the easiest interpretation is that he’d be showing favoritism to his own race.
Attempting to circumvent those restrictions, his administration has been tailoring programs to address general problems that Blacks are disproportionately more susceptible to. This was the message delivered by the White House during its first ever African American Policy in Action Leadership Conference – not by coincidence, either, after a hot summer of accusations, finger waving and head snapping from the Congressional Black Caucus. Ultimately, the all-day event was a highlighted laundry listing of Obama’s recent policies, agenda items, legislation and executive orders that were advanced keeping his base in mind.
“Obviously, we have enormous challenges,” said President Obama during an off-agenda surprise mid-conference visit to an auditorium full of attendees. “The unemployment rate in the African American community has always historically been higher than the norm. And since the unemployment rate generally is high right now, it is way too high when it comes to the African American community.”
Senior officials told reporters on a prior call that the purpose of the all-day session was to get a sense of what more they could do moving forward (ummm – let’s see, unemployment?) rather than just check off administration accomplishments. It was the latest and perhaps last of a series of summits the White House hosted for other constituent groups like Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and youth voters.
Coincidentally, it also took place during a week Congress, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have been most critical of the administration lately, were out of session and not in Washington.
Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said members of their staff were invited and that the summit was merely a culmination of meetings with Black leaders since the 2010 midterm shellacking.
Jarrett detailed a long list of general initiatives that the White House designed to help Blacks specifically – though not explicitly offered just to them. She said the White House has made sure states do a better job enrolling people who qualify for food stamps, given African Americans are disproportionately higher recipients of that aid. Additionally, there were reminders that the White House put money into community colleges where Blacks attend at a disproportionately higher rate (Historically Black Colleges and Universities still have issue with that), using provisions in the Affordable Care act to give more people access to health services as well as improve Head Start – a program Black children attend more than other children. And the President made sure not to leave out Black businesses.
“And obviously African American businesses typically are small businesses, so this is something that can benefit folks right away, and we can start seeing a difference in our communities,” Obama said of his initiatives giving small businesses tax credits, facilitating more loan opportunities from community banks and easing other small business burdens.
Back to that press call. Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, pointed out that the deal worked out with Republicans to avoid a government shut down last December included an earned income tax credit: 44% of all African American children, according to Sperling, benefitted from the policy. Also, while the President hadn’t offered tax benefits for hiring a Black person, his $447 Billion jobs bills act stalled in Congress would’ve given a tax credit for hiring someone who has been unemployed for more than 6 months.
“The American people are behind us on this,” was the President speaking on his Jobs Bill. “Not just Democrats and Independents, but Republicans support many of the ideas in this bill, and so we’re going to keep on pushing very hard, and we’re going to need your help to continue to mobilize communities to focus on how we can put people to work right now.”