Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Obama owes blacks this much
By DeWayne Wickham
TAMPA — There's something disarming about Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama's consigliere, that dulled the knife I was determined to use to cut to the bone of an issue the Obama administration would rather I ignore
She's soft-spoken, quick to smile and deflects criticism of her boss — the president — with the disapproving glance of a schoolteacher who is disappointed by a student's lack of knowledge.
I got that look from Jarrett when I asked her a question that's been bugging me ever since President Obama backtracked on his harsh criticism of the Cambridge, Mass., cops who had arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Asked about the arrest during a July news conference, Obama said the cops "acted stupidly."
"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," the president said a few days later. Obama said he didn't mean to malign the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer.
"I could have calibrated those words differently," Obama said.
So, when I got the chance to interview Jarrett while she was at the National Association of Black Journalists convention last week, I wanted to know whether the president has reconsidered something he said during an earlier news conference this year.
In March, ABC News correspondent Ann Compton asked Obama whether the issue of race comes up when he has policy discussions with his economic advisers. "I think that the last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure out how we're going to fix the economy, and that affects black, brown and white," the president answered.
But a rising tide recovery plan won't be enough to fix the economic problems of blacks whose unemployment is much higher, and family income is far lower, than that of whites. So I asked Jarrett if Obama had rethought his answer.
Pointing to the speech he gave at the NAACP convention in July, she said the president made it very clear "that if you look at the disparities in unemployment, health care and education — all these issues that are his top priorities — they are the areas in which there is suffering disproportionately in the African-American community," Jarrett said. "Everyone is aware that the issues we are tackling in the economy are disproportionately hurting African Americans."
I wish that had been the president's answer. And failing that, I wish he'd gone into the press room a couple of days later — as he did in the Gates' case — and tweaked his response.
He didn't, and that worries me.
Too many blacks — especially black journalists — are reluctant to ask tough questions about what the Obama administration is doing to improve the lives of African Americans. They fear it will embarrass the president, or give his political enemies something to use against him. I worry that not raising these questions — or not getting good answers when we do — will do even greater damage.
Black voters turned out in record numbers to put Obama in the White House. Like any other members of a winning coalition, blacks expect, and deserve, to reap some benefits of the victory they helped make possible.
That, I think, was the point of the question Compton asked Obama. And it was certainly the thrust of the one I put to Jarrett. While her deft handling of my question was disarming, I would like to have heard the president speak those words.