The riddle of black America’s rising woes under Obama

Image of Edward Luce

A paradox haunts America’s first black president. African-American wealth has fallen further under Barack Obama than under any president since the Depression. Yet they are the only group that still gives him high ratings. So meagre is Mr Obama’s national approval rating that embattled Democrats have made him unwelcome in states that twice swept him to power. Those who have fared worst under Mr Obama are the ones who love him the most. You would be hard-pressed to find a better example of perception-driven politics. As the Reverend Kevin Johnson asked in 2013: “Why are we so loyal to a president who isn’t loyal to us?”

The problem has taken on new salience with the resignation of Eric Holder. America’s first black attorney-general has tried to correct the gulag-sized disparities in prison sentencing between blacks and whites. His exit leaves just two African-Americans in Mr Obama’s cabinet. Given the mood among Republicans, it is hard to imagine the US Senate confirming a successor to Mr Holder who shares his priorities.

Mr Obama shot to prominence in 2004 when he said there was no black or white America, just the United States of America. Yet as the continuing backlash to the police shooting of an unarmed young black man in Ferguson has reminded us, Mr Obama will leave the US at least as segregated as he found it. How could that be? The fair answer is that he is not to blame. The poor suffered the brunt of the Great Recession and blacks are far likelier to be poor. By any yardstick – the share of those with subprime mortgages, for example, or those working in casualised jobs – African-Americans were more directly in the line of fire.

Without Mr Obama’s efforts, African-American suffering would have been even greater. He has fought Congress to preserve food stamps and long-term unemployment insurance – both of which help blacks disproportionately. The number of Americans without health insurance has fallen by 8m since the Affordable Care Act came into effect. Likewise, no president has done as much as Mr Obama – to depressingly little effect – to try to correct the racial bias in US federal sentencing. Bill Clinton was once termed “America’s first black president”. But it was under Mr Clinton that incarceration rates rose to their towering levels.

By no honest reckoning can Mr Obama be blamed for the decline in black America’s fortunes. Yet the facts are deeply unflattering. Since 2009, median non-white household income has dropped by almost a 10th to $33,000 a year, according to the US Federal Reserve’s survey of consumer finances. As a whole, median incomes fell by 5 per cent. But by the more telling measure of net wealth – assets minus liabilities – the numbers offer a more troubling story.

The median non-white family today has a net worth of just $18,100 – almost a fifth lower than it was when Mr Obama took office. White median wealth, on the other hand, has inched up by 1 per cent to $142,000. In 2009, white households were seven times richer than their black counterparts. That gap is now eightfold. Both in relative and absolute terms, blacks are doing worse under Mr Obama.

Why then do African-Americans still give him such stellar ratings? To understand, listen to the dog whistles of Mr Obama’s detractors. The more angrily the Tea Party reviles Mr Obama, the more ardently African-Americans back him. When Newt Gingrich, the former Republican leader, described Mr Obama as a “food stamp president”, the subtext was plain. It was too when Joe Wilson, a Republican lawmaker, interrupted Mr Obama’s address to Congress to call him a liar – an indignity none of his predecessors suffered.

Likewise, no president has been forced to authenticate that he was born in the US (rather than Kenya). Donald Trump then demanded proof that the president had attended Harvard. How could a black man get so far without cheating? That at least is what many black Americans heard.

Then there is Mr Obama’s impact as a role model. With the exception of the fictional Cosby Show – the 1980s sitcom about an upbeat black household – many whites have little experience of intact black families. The latter remains dishearteningly uncommon. Barack and Michelle Obama have done much to counteract that image.

There is a prominently displayed photograph in the White House showing the moment that a young black boy touched Mr Obama’s hair to compare it with his own. “So, what do you think?” asked Mr Obama. “Yes, it does feel the same,” said the child. That episode conveys something no Fed statistician can measure.

Black Americans seem to grasp something many of Mr Obama’s white supporters often forget. If the opposing party controls Congress and wants to make trouble, it can stop almost any White House initiative in its tracks. Most voters hold the president accountable for the big trends affecting their lives, particularly economic. But there are times when this is not fully deserved. Under this president at least, black America’s insights may be a step ahead of the rest.

edward.luce@ft.com


Letter in response to this column:

Discontent with Obama is spread across electorate / From Jonathan P Kahn

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