Editor's note: Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is an author and the William S. Tod professor of religion and chairman of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. His latest book is "In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America."
(CNN) -- If we are to address seriously the economic devastation in black communities across the nation, we have to put aside, once and for all, the idea that President Obama has a special obligation to African-Americans.
Obama has said repeatedly that he can't be the president of black America; he is the president of all Americans. We should take him at his word.
But to be president of all Americans involves recognizing the extraordinary differences that make up our nation. These differences are not only cultural, racial and ethnic; they also involve differences in quality of life and in access to opportunity -- disparities that have long histories in the United States.
Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's classic work, "American Apartheid," charts this history in the housing sector. And William Julius Wilson's important books, especially "When Work Disappears," give us a sense of the complexities surrounding black communities and unemployment.
Politicians talk about the needs of Main Street in contrast to the recent bailout of Wall Street. But Main Street is often divided by railroad tracks or highways that separate different sides of town. If Obama is going to address the problems of Main Street, he must understand that it isn't some idyllic space where all live and suffer equally and together.
I am sure the president recognizes this. And I understand that he can't be cornered into some troublesome game of identity politics. Partisan camps would have a field day.
But it is one thing to say that Obama must be the president of all Americans; it is another to say, because of that, African-Americans cannot demand specific policies that will relieve their suffering.
Americans are being ravaged by this economic recession. Joblessness plagues black communities. The Economic Policy Institute projects that African-American unemployment will reach 17.2 percent, a 25-year high.
In several states, such as Michigan, Alabama, and Illinois, the EPI projects unemployment rates for African-Americans will climb above 20 percent.
Health care disparities ensure a shorter life expectancy for African-Americans. The housing crisis has foreclosed the dreams of many.
More black children are growing up poor. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 35 percent of black children live in poverty. In the 10 most populated states, "rates of child poverty among black children range from 26 percent in California to 51 percent in Ohio."
It is not enough to offer policies to lift all boats; the buoyancy of some ensures their survival. Others are sinking at alarming rates. African-Americans must cry out. Those cries cannot take the form of the rhetoric of old. "Freedom Now" doesn't work. Nor do angry demands for "Black Power" seem appropriate.
Talk of justice is always relevant. What black communities need are just and targeted policies to address the Great Depression they face.
The president's recent black leadership summit doesn't help matters much. Inviting a few black leaders to the White House does not alone constitute a substantive engagement with the problems of black communities. In fact, it only reproduces a bad form of custodial politics -- where a small cadre of individuals broker on behalf of the supposed interests of all black communities.
Something much more substantial is desperately needed. The irony in all of this is that Obama and many other black leaders are asking African-Americans to trust that he is working diligently on their behalf without any tangible evidence. That trust rests on the assumption that as the first black president he would in fact have the interests of black communities at heart.
But this is precisely the view that we are urged to reject. In fact, we must give up this idea and work publicly to demand policy ideas from the administration and to secure legislation from Congress that will improve the circumstances of African-American citizens.
The president is right. He is the president of all Americans. I trust that he understands what these words really mean.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eddie S. Glaude Jr.