By Rev. Kevin Johnson of the Philadelphia Tribune
This piece was published on April 14
As President Barack Obama begins his second term, there is something noticeably different about his new cabinet – the absence of African-American leaders and advisors.
The Congressional Black Caucus chair, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio recently sent the president a letter stating, “You have publicly expressed your commitment to retaining diversity within your cabinet. However, the people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.”
When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding.
In American presidential history, President William Jefferson Clinton has been, by far, the most transformational leader.
Clinton appointed seven African-American cabinet members, the most of any president in history: Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce; Mike Espy as Secretary of Agriculture; Hazel O’Leary as Secretary of Energy; Alexis Herman as Secretary of Labor; and Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veteran Affairs. President Clinton also appointed Togo West as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Rodney Slater as Secretary of Transportation.
Compared to Obama, President George W. Bush also had more African-Americans in his cabinet, including the first African-American secretary of state and secretary of education, Colin Powell and Rod Paige, respectively. Bush also appointed Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Alphonso Jackson as secretary of housing and urban development.
For Obama, Eric Holder is the first African-American attorney general and the only African-American cabinet member of Obama’s administration.
In sum, when one compares the first African-American president to his recent predecessors, the number of African-Americans in senior cabinet positions is very disappointing: Clinton (7); Bush (4); and Obama (1). Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.
Moreover, while having African-Americans in senior cabinet positions does not guarantee an economic agenda that will advance Black people, it at least is a starting point and puts us in the driver’s seat. With President Obama, we are not in the driver’s seat – or even in the car.
For me, the absence of African-Americans in a second term is not only disrespectful to the Black community—who voted 96 percent for President Obama in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012, but also underscores a larger problem of economic and job opportunities for the Black community.
Indeed, if we objectively look at Obama’s presidency, African-Americans are in a worse position than they were before he became president. At the end of January 2009, unemployment for African-Americans was 12.7 percent. Four years later, the situation is worse, and unemployment is higher at 13.8 percent.
For those of you who have read my articles in The Philadelphia Tribune, you know I have been a very strong supporter of the president and worked hard to get him elected in 2008 and 2012.
Shortly after Obama announced his candidacy to run for the office of President of United States, in 2008 I hosted the first clergy breakfast in Philadelphia to encourage religious leaders to support his candidacy. This was a major gathering at the time, because both Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter were strong supporters of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and were encouraging the clergy to support her and not Obama.
I supported then-Senator Obama not because he was Black, but because I truly believed in my heart that he was the best candidate to empathize, understand, and develop policies to help the African-American community, the poor, and previously under-represented communities.
To my disappointment, the president has not only failed the Black community, but also has failed to surround himself with qualified African-Americans who could develop policies to help the most disenfranchised.
The president’s agenda appears to be for everyone except Black people—his most loyal constituency.
In 2012, two prominent Philadelphia lawyers convened a meeting between White House senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, and a cross-section of Philadelphia’s African-American leadership. The purpose of the meeting was to candidly discuss the president’s re-election strategy and policies toward African-Americans.
The meeting was initially cordial until I mustered the courage to ask Jarrett a question I have heard repeatedly in the African-American community, “Over the past four years, what has President Obama done to help Black people?”
After the question was raised, you could hear a pin drop in the room. Jarrett, who is known as the chief loyalist to the president, did not mince words when she responded to my question and proceeded to fire off the administration talking points: the passing of Obamacare, the increase in PELL grants, etc. She concluded her remarks by saying that we should support the president because “we are family.”
Moreover, when I raised additional questions about persistent high unemployment in the Black community and the lack of appointing an African-American to the United States Supreme Court (a move that could have real and lasting impact on the future of our community), Ms. Jarrett then went for the jugular and said, “The president is the president of all people and not just Black people.”
Jarrett is right. The president is the president of all people, but aren’t Black people part of the “all”? In the words of Langston Hughes, we “too sing America.”
Given the president’s poor record in catapulting an economic and empowerment agenda for the African-American community, we must begin asking the questions:
- Why are we so loyal to a president who is not loyal to us?
- What is it about our community that we continue to support candidates nationally and locally just because their skin has been “kissed by nature’s sun”?
- And more importantly, why are we loyal to a Democratic Party that often ignores us and takes our votes for granted?
My questions do not suggest that we should necessarily change political affiliation, but they do suggest that the African-American community must hold political leaders accountable and change our strategy to ensure that we are fully engaged in the political process beyond November elections.
George Burrell, a member of my church, a well-known lawyer, and someone I respect, recently told a group of leaders that having an elected Black politician is not enough. He argues that having an African-American mayor, governor, or president does not guarantee, in and of itself, that the Black elected official’s agenda will be the same as the Black community. After much reflection, I agree with him.
In order for the African-American community to become “real” players in the political process, shaping a politician’s agenda, Burrell argues that the Black community must do what every other community is doing – control the politicians through money.
In the past, the African-American community has relied exclusively on our voting power to advance their agenda. However, voting power is meaningless when politicians are perpetually thinking about their next election and the financial resources they will need to win.
If Burrell is right, then this would be more of a reason why the president should have made appointments that would not only make a difference in our community but further break down barriers in our beloved country. President Obama is not running for re-election, and should have felt empowered to appoint a diverse cabinet and not one reflected of the status quo.
Hence, this is the main issue I have with President Obama and his second term: Obama is more of a historical leader than he is a transformational leader for the African-American community.
If President Obama does not make some changes soon, at the end of his presidency he will be known as a historical leader – the first African-American president, but not a transformational leader – the president who truly uplifted and catapulted Black people from cycles of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and despair.
As we observed across the nation the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, I hope that President Obama and others are reminded that we, too, have dreams that should and must be fulfilled.
As always, keep the faith.
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is the senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.