Tavis Smiley has a bone to pick with President Obama. I know, you are probably saying to yourself “and this is news how?” It’s not. He has been a rather constant critic of the president for a host of reasons since almost the beginning of Obama’s presidency.
I was watching Fox News Channel this week (really), and Sean Hannity mentioned his conversation with Tavis at the end of last year. And what was Tavis’s complaint? That African Americans are worse off under President Obama now than when he took office.
It’s easy to dismiss Tavis as a crank who’s really just upset because the President hasn’t done everything that Tavis Smiley said he needs to do. But let’s remove the personality from the critique for a moment. Does he have a point? Are things worse off for Black Americans under the first black president? Well, when you look at the numbers, yes. But, as with most things in life, things aren’t so black and white and the true answer is just more nuanced then that.
So yes, when you look at the numbers, African Americans (as a whole) aren’t doing great. At the end of 2008, the unemployment rate was 11.9 percent. Now it is 12.1 percent after rising as high as 16.7 percent in 2011. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. For one, EVERYONE suffered in 2009 through 2012—we were in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate for all Americans went up during that time, not just Black Americans. It has historically been the case that Black unemployment moves in parallel with white unemployment. The problem is that is has consistently been almost double that of Whites for over 50 years. And while I don’t expect someone like Sean Hannity to point these things out, it is important that the rest of us who care about facts keep these things in mind.
Now, that is not to say that more needs to be done. The unemployment crisis among African American men, especially our young men, is staggering. And if we care about the future of our ever diversifying nation, interventions need to be discussed and explored before these kids drop out of school or end up in the criminal justice system. That is why I was so pleased to hear that President Obama has launched an initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, specifically aimed at creating pathways to success for men and boys of color. I imagine that there was some hesitation among some in the White House to launch such an initiative aimed at Black boys, as I’m sure some on the right will say “AH HA! We told you Obama was going to force his BIG BLACK AGENDA ON AMERICA.” But it has been clear from president’s recent speeches that this is something he is very passionate about, so critics be darned, he’s doing it.
This initiative will pull ideas and commitments from all sectors of life: government, private sector and foundations, which is key. All these actors have a vital role to play in helping to improve outcomes for young men of color, but they also will all face the negative consequences of inaction. It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that everyone in America has an equal shot at opportunity and the American dream. And it will be good for these stakeholders to put some actions behind their words.
Will this placate the Tavis Smiley’s of the world? Maybe, although I doubt it. And I would never begrudge anyone their right to advocate for what they think is fair and just. But they should also give credit where credit is due. The administration took a big and important step this week and they should be applauded for it.