by Eva Paterson
Nov. 6, 2012 – The election that ended tonight took several years off my life. Between the blatant racism of the Romney-Ryan campaign – such as calling Barack Obama the “food stamp” president – and recent polls indicating that too many Americans just don’t like Black people, my soul has been tested.
Four years ago, I cried like a baby when the Obamas walked out on that stage in Grant Park in Chicago. I could not believe that this country had actually come this far. Although vilified by the Right, the First Lady’s comment that she was finally proud of her country resonated on a deep level with me.
Mrs. Obama’s comments reflect the sentiments of many Black Americans. Mrs. Rita Marshall, the mother of my fabulous friend, Shauna Marshall, said to me once: “I love my country and hate my country.” Black Americans who share this deep conflict and those who understand both the triumphs and shameful chapters in our country’s history are loathe to express ourselves for fear of being tarred as the kind of “victims” that Mitt Romney mentioned in his infamous “47 percent” remarks to his wealthy donors.
My feelings about the president’s first term have been mixed. You have to love the brother. He is cool, brilliant, and loves his wife and daughters. He told us he would get the troops out of Iraq and that health care for all would become a reality – and he delivered. In his travels around the world, he made our fellow inhabitants of this beleaguered planet remember the promise of America. There is a long impressive list of accomplishments.
However, there were so many frustrations. The drone strikes. The unwillingness to use the short-lived 60-vote Senate majority to fill the federal bench with progressive judges. Surrounding himself with old-school folks such as Larry Sommers. Failing to include folks from labor in his inner circle while shaping economic policy during the perilous financial meltdown in early 2008. Ignoring Paul Krugman’s screams about focusing on jobs. Giving away money to the banks, but not to those losing their homes. And not effectively explaining the Affordable Care Act, allowing the Right to frame the issue.
Many of us felt unable to express any criticism. Barack Obama was the first Black president so we kept quiet. I shared my conflict last year at a Kellogg Foundation conference on racial healing with some Black friends. My friend John Powell said to me that progressives needed to step up and tell the truth. I felt my backbone stiffen.
But then the reelection campaign started and it was clear that my critiques of the president had to give way to a full-throated endorsement of his second term. The Ayn Rand-Grover Norquist “weaken the government so you can drag it into the bathtub and drown it” approach promoted by Paul Ryan, coupled with the shape shifter named Mitt Romney, made it imperative that I fully engage in getting the president reelected.
I spoke at a rally organized by the San Francisco Therapists for Obama (I know this sounds like a Saturday Night Live caricature of the Bay Area). I gave money every time the First Lady asked. (We are now close friends. She emails me quite often.) I sent out personal emails to friends and colleagues urging them not to give into despair, especially that sinking feeling we had after the first debate.
Three wishes for the second term
Well, after all the teeth gnashing and nail biting, President Obama won a second term. And I have three wishes for you, Mr. President.
First, be more forceful about appointing federal judges. As a former constitutional law professor, you know better than most the importance of the federal bench. Friends of mine with experience in these matters recommend a couple of things. One, make sure that this area of your administration is adequately staffed. There need to be people in the White House and designated staffers in the Senate to shepherd these nominations through. Also, send up a number of appointees at the same time so that they cannot be isolated and left to languish like our friends Justice Goodwin Liu and Judge Edwin Chen.
Second, please listen to Paul Krugman on economic policy. He was right early on in the economic crisis when he was adamant about the need to create jobs. Romney and Ryan hammered you on that, Mr. President. It resonated with the people. The fact that TARP monies went to the banks rather than homeowners helped fuel the Tea Party movement. Although racial bias, both explicit and implicit, was also a driving engine of the Tea Party, the perception that your administration favored the 1 percent caused you unnecessary problems.
Finally, do not abandon the needs of Black people because you will be seen as playing favorites. One harsh reality has been made clear to me during this ugly campaign: Black folks are out here on our own.
I caught Bill Maher’s show last week, and one of his guests was Republican strategist Margaret Hoover. When Maher pointed out that the GOP seemed to be appealing to white men, Hoover agreed and said that the Republicans had to attract a more diverse electorate, such as women, LGBT and Latinos. I was struck by the fact that she did not even mention Black folks. Other pundits routinely state that both parties need to court Latinos. Black Americans are never mentioned.
Mr. President, Black Americans are your most loyal voting bloc, yet aside from political appointments, we haven’t seen any positive policy changes specifically geared towards the Black community. We understand that it’s important to be the president for all Americans. When you announced deferred action on young immigrants, we applauded you because we knew that this issue was important to the Latino and Asian communities. When you abandoned DOMA, we cheered knowing that this was important to the LGBT community. Women took a step forward with your signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Advancing Black America
What have you done specifically for Black America? I know that you feel that policies that benefit Americans in general help Black people, but you advanced a number of policies that benefited specific Americans. We would like policy changes that specifically advance African Americans.
I asked my friends Michael Harris and Thomas Saenz, both civil rights attorneys, about the progress of Black America in the Obama presidency. Michael reminded me that we have not heard much from the president on the ongoing attack on affirmative action currently before the United States Supreme Court in the form of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. While this case has significant impact on all people of color, it is of particular interest to the Black community.
Mr. President, the other area where you can be of help to communities of color, including Black people, is the criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” describes a broken system that results in the over-incarceration of our people. The ill-advised war on drugs is part of the problem. Your Justice Department plays a critical role in addressing this crisis.
It’s almost as if Black Americans are at a disadvantage with a Black president. A white, Latino or Asian American president would have been under more pressure to deliver advances for the Black community. We expect your help in your second term, Mr. President.
President Obama, we love you dearly. We have prayed for your success, safety and well-being. You represent all of us. Right after you were elected, there was a political cartoon depicting the ghosts of slaves coming out from behind trees and bushes near the White House as you walked in. They were so happy. Our ancestors are so proud. You have redeemed our honor in a country that treats us so poorly. We need you to stand up for us and to advance policies that will help us move upward, “lifting as we climb.”
God bless you and your family.
Eva Jefferson Paterson is president and co-founder in 2003 of the Equal Justice Society, a national organization dedicated to changing the law through progressive legal theory, public policy and practice. Previously, she worked at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for 26 years, 13 of them as executive director. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.