Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Blacks should question Obama, too

By DeWayne Wickham

BALTIMORE - At Leroy Geddis' barbershop, a favorite gathering place in this city for people who like to debate the things politicians do and say, not much has been said about President Obama's speech to the NAACP.

"The big story here has been the death of Michael Jackson, not what Obama said to the NAACP," Geddis told me.

Two days earlier Obama gave a speech at the NAACP's 100th anniversary convention in New York City that caused some people in the media to wonder how blacks might react. "We need a new mind set, a new set of attitudes - because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little ... from themselves," Obama, the nation's first black president, said in that address.

One thing is clear: Many of Geddis' customers don't want to hear anything negative about this president. "Every day I try to get into it hard about Obama, but it usually ends with someone saying I should stop raising questions because he's doing as much for us as white folks will let him do," said Geddis.

That doesn't surprise me.

Geddis' 19-year-old business, "York Road Barber," is located along a gritty stretch where nothing has changed in the six months since Obama entered the White House. The sprinkling of black merchants still struggle to survive in a neighborhood hard hit by unemployment, drug addiction and the ravages of single parenthood - just as when George W. Bush was president.

But like many other blacks, most of Geddis' customers believe Obama eventually will do something to make their lives better, even though he told his NAACP audience they must be masters of their own fate. "Your destiny is in your hands - you cannot forget that," he said.

Still, few who debate the impact of things that are largely beyond their control - steady work, quality schools and safe streets - want to blame Obama in the same way that they blamed Bush for government's failure to help them.

I don't think Obama should get a free pass. Obama is right to say that blacks who are born into poverty and live in crime-infested neighborhoods should work hard to escape those conditions. But he should also be just as forceful in acknowledging government's responsibility to help lift poor people out of poverty and make their streets safer.

And Obama's right to suggest that activists groups such as the NAACP can do more to help improve the lives of blacks. In 2007, the NAACP helped to get nearly 20,000 people to march in protest of the arrest of six black teenagers in Jena, La., after a simmering dispute with some white teens. That same year the FBI reported that blacks were being murdered by other blacks at an alarming rate. But no mass protest march was called by the NAACP or other black activists to decry this violence, which took a far greater toll on blacks than the Jena Six.

Blacks have a right to expect special attention from Obama. Not because he is black, but because their jobless rate is 1 1/2 times that of whites; black students lag behind whites in math and reading test scores, and because disparate health care leaves blacks "more likely to suffer from a host of diseases," as Obama told the NAACP.

Maybe Obama is doing as much as he can to fix these problems. Maybe not. This is the conversation that blacks need to have - before it's too late.

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