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Obama needs to focus more on black economic crisis

By Sophia Nelson, Special to CNN
updated 11:51 AM EDT, Thu September 29, 2011
President Barack Obama addressed the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Phoenix Awards on Saturday.
President Barack Obama addressed the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Phoenix Awards on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sophia Nelson: President Obama's remarks to black caucus caused controversy
  • She says the president seemed to be urging members to stop complaining about administration
  • Nelson: Black community has suffered the greatest degree of harm from the recession
  • Obama administration should do more to create jobs and relieve economic stress, she says

Editor's note: Sophia A. Nelson is a freelance journalist who covers the White House and the author of the book, "Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama."

(CNN) -- It is no secret that the Congressional Black Caucus did not initially support Barack Obama's campaign to become president of the United States. During the 2008 primary campaign, half of the members backed then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. It was not until the Iowa caucus win by Obama that many black Americans started to believe it was possible for a black man to become president. And even once it was clear that Obama could win, some CBC members were still skeptical.

Fast forward to this year. The black caucus and most of black America (with the exception of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West) had remained silent for two years about the devastating economic impact of the recession on black people. They did so out of fear that to criticize this president would hurt his standing as the nation's first black commander in chief. But finally this summer, the CBC, led by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, took off the gloves and broke its silence through a series of national town hall forums.

Waters said she was concerned that the president's jobs tour "did not include any black cities." She further indicated that the black caucus wanted to put pressure on Obama, but could not, due to the fact that black people "love the president." She said the caucus also "loves the president," but lamented, "We are getting tired." Waters ended by asking the audience, "Will you unleash us? Let us know when to let go, and we will let go."

Sophia Nelson
Sophia Nelson

At the White House, there was dismay about how to respond to this attack from its most loyal base of supporters. Finally, the White House started a blitz of interviews on black media. Although the president and his staff steered away from using the word "black," they made clear that they heard the CBC's message and were working diligently to change course.

All seemed well, that is until Saturday night at the 41st annual CBC Phoenix Awards dinner in Washington, where the president told the attendees, "I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do, CBC."

Taking the president's comments in context, it is clear that he directed his ire at his critics. Some say he was offering a "tough love" rebuke, rallying the troops to get up and act. But the reality is that black America is in a crisis that civil rights icon Marian Wright Edelman last week called "the worst since slavery."

The president made clear his dismay with such criticisms during a Monday night BET interview when asked by a reporter why he doesn't "target black America specifically for economic relief." Obama responded, "America doesn't work that way."

Others have questioned the president's choice of words at the CBC dinner and asked, "Who is complaining?" Their take is that they are standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves and that they are pushing a black agenda as others have pushed their own agendas.

The president would never speak in such a manner to the Hispanic Caucus, which has pushed him very aggressively on immigration reform and now has a Latina justice on the nation's high court. Nor would he address our gay brethren in such a manner as they pushed hard for a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and now want the Defense of Marriage Act reversed. How about our Jewish brothers and sisters? Would he tell them to stand down on their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or stop lobbying hard for pro-Israel policies? Never.

For reasons beyond my understanding, the audience at the CBC that heard this rebuke cheered the president. But those of us who are journalists would be wrong not to question why black America is so willing to tolerate such openly unbalanced treatment when other groups would never accept it. So the deeper question is not why President Obama took the tone he did, but why black America tolerates it.

Obama seemed to be asking black America once again to keep the faith -- to "press on" and to "shake it off." OK -- but how do you shake off poverty? How do you keep the faith when you are unemployed and cannot feed your kids? How do you press on when you have no health care, no home, and no hope?

I too like this president. I voted for him in 2008, and his candidacy led me to leave the Republican Party to become an independent. But I think the time has come for the administration to "take its slippers off" and march into America's urban centers and rural centers, and create a sustainable and real-time jobs policy -- going beyond the president's jobs bill -- that will touch everyday black Americans who are out of work and economically disenfranchised. That is not too much to ask, and it is not showing favoritism to one group over others. The cold hard fact is that no group is being as negatively impacted by this recession as blacks, so it is proper and necessary for the CBC and others to continue to press this president to do more.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sophia A. Nelson.

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