NEW YORK (Apr. 25) – As the nation looks back to January 20, many people will remember the tears of joy and reminiscing as Barack Obama took the oath of office as America’s first Black president. Now, 100 days later on April 26, civil rights leaders, analysts, pundits and ordinary Americans continue to mark the historic occasion, while also pausing to reflect on how far the new president has come and how far he still has to go.
President Obama’s initial accomplishments have included:
• Immediately confronting the nation’s failing economy to the point where he now sees “glimmers of hope.”
• Reversing a string of anti-union executive orders issued by the Bush administration.
• Establishing a Middle Class Working Families Task Force.
• Closing the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison to hold what the Bush administration called “enemy combatants” and suspected terrorists following September 11.
• Making his first trip to Europe for the G-20 Summit with first Lady Michelle Obama, raising good will for America abroad.
• Traveling to Mexico with hopes of stopping violent drug cartels and preventing them from entering the U. S.
• Reaching out to restore relationships with Cuba with strong support from the Congressional Black Caucus.
• Recommitting millions of dollars to the prevention and awareness of HIV/AIDS in America.
But, specifically, how is the new president doing on issues pertaining to African Americans from a civil rights perspective? Pointing out that 100 days is simply not enough time to tell, some civil rights leaders give him an A so far, with most also giving an “incomplete” on the grassroots economy.
“There are some As and a couple of incompletes,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a phone interview from Thailand. “I think the position against torture, an A; the G-20 conference, putting a credible face on America’s foreign policy where he has trust capital and Bush had trust deficit-disorder.”
Jackson also listed Obama’s reaching out to Cuba, Venezuela and the overture toward Iran as all As, along with his dealing with the student loan industry, which Jackson described as a “$95 billion-a-year rip-off.”
But the incompletes – mainly in the area of economics – are clear, he says.
“There’s an incomplete on the stimulus because it must be more targeted to get to the bottom. As the states get it, they’re using the term ‘shovel-ready.’ But, shovel-ready for those who don’t have a shovel because of the lack of capital and lack of credit means they may not be ready. That could be seen as boot straps without the boots.”
To be fair, Jackson conceded the president could only demand that the money gets out of Washington. “But, we must demand that the states get it down to where the people are,” he said. “We have to be certain that it gets down to the most unemployed, the most in need of training, the most in need of business development. That’s an on-going struggle there.”
As Black unemployment surges toward 14 percent, National Urban League President Marc Morial agreed.
On a scale of 1-10, Morial gave the president a 9 for his first 100 days.
In the Black community, Morial cited a need for greater civil rights enforcement and the need for help with job development.
“The creation of an agency taskforce to assist African Americans in securing construction jobs and green jobs; and the hiring of African Americans in subcabinet positions at Education, HUD, Labor and Health & Human Services,” Morial said.
Like Jackson, he says African Americans must press local and state government to do right by stimulus money.
“We need to remain engaged and hold mayors, governors and local school districts accountable for the stimulus dollars to ensure that African Americans are included in its benefits,” Morial said.
Morial also praised Obama for getting off to a fast start with the passage of the stimulus bill, the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the appointment of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree also applauded the president’s appointment of Holder, America’s first Black attorney general and listed a string of observations that have impressed him within the first 100 days, including “his symbolic and substantive decisions evince a level of maturity and calm judgment rarely seen by someone so early in their term as president.”
He gave Obama a 10 for adopting a stringent ethics code for his administration and for suspending the prosecution of suspected terrorists who have been detained, but not charged with offenses for nearly seven years; for outlawing waterboarding as an interrogation tactic and for appointing former rival and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
However, Ogletree’s wishes for the next 100 days are just as strong, as he also pointed to the need to connect with those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“I would like the president to do a tour of America and ascertain the extent and the causes of poverty in America and seek a bipartisan set of proposals, comparable to a modern-day American Marshall Plan to rebuild America and energize its people from the bottom up,” Ogletree said. “Furthermore, I would hope that President Obama will continue to work with HBCUS to create our next generation of leaders in business and industry.”
While civil rights leaders across the board applaud the new president, they almost unanimously stopped short of the highest rating of 10, noting the incomplete on issues pertaining to grassroots African Americans.
“President Obama has tackled some of the critical issues affecting this country, reversed some of the wrongs of the previous administration and has offered hope for all Americans,” said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, but quickly citing criminal justice issues that need work.
“Forty percent of the prison population is African American while African Americans only make up 13 percent of the country’s population,”
Jealous said. “We would like to see the president pass a series of laws that would do away with racial profiling, eliminate the excessive use of force by law enforcement and enforce strict guidelines on prisoner treatment.”
Like other leaders, Jealous also strongly pointed out economic deficiencies in the Black community.
“Our citizens are losing their homes at a rate we have never seen before; small businesses are folding and more Americans are losing their jobs every day. President Obama needs to address these issues and address them fast,” Jealous said. “The housing crisis is crippling our country and the administration needs to call for a moratorium on foreclosures on homes. Further, President Obama needs to implement smart policies to stop the exponential job losses and put an end to the hemorrhaging in the small business community.”
Jealous concluded, “We cannot mortgage the lower class to invest in the middle class. With millions of African American’s out of work, the president needs to address the issue of poverty. A large number of Americans live on Main Street; however, a large number of African Americans live on Back Street, and the president must continue to offer hope to those aspiring to be in the middle class.”
While many said it’s far too soon to realistically rate the president, they were quick to say what they want more of.
John Payton, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, applauded Obama’s appointment of Holder but he also wants more attention paid to the impoverished.
“Many inner city communities are in economic and social distress,” said Payton. “Their public schools are failing to graduate many, and in some cases, most of their students. Public housing is in an equally distressed situation. Jobs are being lost; health providers and health insurance are being lost. The criminal justice system is playing an inappropriate role in many of those communities. We need comprehensive programs to address these critical problems.”
Payton said social and civil rights groups must propose policies for corrective action and not stand by and watch.
The greatest help for the administration must be everyone’s patience, said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
“I don’t think you can judge someone after only 100 days. That said, he’s accomplished more in his first quarter than most presidents achieve in their entire first term. He’s focused on creating jobs where we need them and has signed into law a number of backlogged civil rights bills,” said Henderson. “We didn’t get in the morass we’re in today overnight and we’re not going to get out of it in 100 days or 200 days or even in a year.”
Perhaps Jackson summed it up most succinctly. “We’re better off than we were before he was inaugurated.” (New America Media)
Hazel Trice Edney