In just over a month, President Obama will be sworn in for his second term. Audie Cornish takes a moment to look back at what his presidency has meant for African-Americans. We hear from a comedian, David Alan Grier; from a lawmaker, Emanuel Cleaver, who is outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; and from three seniors at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
In just over a month, Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term as president of the United States. But before we embark on the next four years, we want to take a moment to reflect on the last four and what they've meant to African-Americans.
While black voters proved once again to be President Obama's most loyal constituency, giving him 93 percent of their vote, he is not without black critics. Everyone from the scholar Cornel West, who's called the president, among other things, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface, to others who quietly lament the fact that the president rarely speaks of race, even while the unemployment rate among African-Americans remains twice that of whites.
Today, conversations with African-Americans about what it's been like to live under the first black president; changes they've felt, expectations met and unmet, lessons learned. We'll hear from students, a lawmaker, and first, a comedian.
(SOUNDBITE OF "CHOCOLATE NEWS" CLIP)
DAVID ALAN GRIER: President Barack Obama, mmm-mmm-mmm.
GRIER: Words so sweet they melt in your mouth.
CORNISH: In 2008, David Alan Grier had a show on Comedy Central called "Chocolate News." It was dominated by politics especially after the election.
(SOUNDBITE OF "CHOCOLATE NEWS" CLIP)
GRIER: I've got to be honest America, I didn't think you had it in you. That is a seven million-vote TKO. You were not playing around 'cause you just put a black man, with a brown name in the White House...
CORNISH: And here's David Alan Grier last week at the Improv in Kansas City.
GRIER: A lot of people were upset with the president. The left was upset with President Obama 'cause they felt he wasn't liberal enough. And the right was upset with him 'cause they felt he was too liberal. I was upset with the president, OK? Because I voted for a black president. Do you understand?
GRIER: A black president and he has been acting very beige. I want a black president.
GRIER: I want a black president these next for years. I look for a black president. OK?
CORNISH: Maybe you could give us a radio friendly version of that bit just what you meant by black president?
GRIER: What? I said Mike Tyson, black. Mike Tyson, black. Suge Knight, black. He should instill fear in people.
GRIER: You know, and I went on and said, you know, I want a president so black when I see him cross the street I lock my doors, 'cause I'm scared, you know.
CORNISH: And you're getting a lot of laughs there and it really felt like you were tapping into something. And what do you think that is?
GRIER: I feel like this. You know, if I think it, other people think it. And most of that bit is about playing with the notion of blackness. What is black? What is race? And, you know, it's not what I really feel but I just thought it was very funny.
But there was a part of me that thinks like, you know, President Obama, he's like the Gorbachev of black presidents. So...
GRIER: Oh, no. He's ushering in racial glasnost. So the next black president is going to be real black like, you know, Omar from "The Wire" black, you know. And but just playing with that notion and trying to have fun with it.
CORNISH: We actually spoke to a congressman that said if people are waiting for Obama to come out in the Rose Garden in a dashiki, in the second term...
GRIER: Please, don't.
CORNISH: ...they need to step back, you know, that there isn't going to be a different version of Obama that comes along.
GRIER: No, it's fun to fantasize about how we think this perfect - our perfect version of the, quote-unquote, "black president" should be like. But no, that would be as frightening as when my father came out of his apartment in a dashiki, and he just bought a waterbed. So, please don't do that President Obama.
GRIER: We don't need you in a dashiki. A suit will do.
CORNISH: David Alan Grier, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CORNISH: The actor and comedian David Alan Grier.
That congressman I mentioned, who warned against expecting a different President Obama next term, that's Democrat Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. And that post-racial glasnost Grier joked about has actually complicated things for Cleaver and others in the Congressional Black Caucus; a group that's been criticized for not pushing the White House hard enough on issues that affect the black community.
In the midst of heated rhetoric from conservative activists and the fiery debate over healthcare and other issues, Cleaver says the CBC was walking a delicate walk with the president.
REPRESENTATIVE EMANUEL CLEAVER: He was receiving criticism from all quarters and most of it unjustifiable. And some of it very personal and nasty. And some of it even racist. And so, in the midst of all of that, what in the world would I do and feel comfortable about doing if I joined in with the same level of criticism toward the president?
Now, African-Americans, by and large, understand that we cannot allow the president to go through his entire term of office without criticism coming from us. But they also expect that the criticism would be respectful and that's what we have done.
CORNISH: At the same time, it's been said that the way that groups - whoever they are, whether it be the Tea Party or gay rights groups or whoever - the way that they get onto the agenda is through conflict, going after the White House. And if a community feels like it can't really have open conflict, where does that leave you in term of the agenda setting that you charge yourself with as black leaders?
CLEAVER: Look, I think it's important for me to be 100 percent honest and candid. Under normal circumstances with a non-African-American president, our criticism would have been much more stinging. I think we understand that African-Americans, even out in the country, most of them would not have even wanted us to demand.
And, in fact, we've had people who've said, you know, we don't care if there's 16 percent unemployment, we want you to support this president. And there is not a single CBC member who can challenge what I just said, that that's what we would hear in our districts. And...
CORNISH: When President Obama elected, I remember a lot of discussion among black activists about whether this was a new kind of black politics.
CORNISH: And do you see that?
CLEAVER: Yes, President Obama and some other elected officials around the country did not come through the Civil Rights Movement. The president growing up in Hawaii and then going to an Ivy League school probably did not have the experiences many of us have had - the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, almost all of us. And so, he can't relate to everything that we consider when we are observing the goings on, legislatively, in Washington.
CORNISH: Do you embrace his kind of approach of things? Do you find that you're putting forth legislation that doesn't necessarily, say, is going to help black constituencies; that it's going to help rural, urban - and that sort of thing? Do you find that you're changing how you do business as a result?
CLEAVER: Without a doubt, the Congressional Black Caucus has taken into account the fact that racelessness, with regard to legislation, is far more beneficial than standing up and saying we want this because black people are feelings this.
We designed a jobs program that would give special consideration, in terms of federal funds, to areas of poverty and not areas based on skin color. We did that with intentionality. We said this is the way we'll have to do it. And it served two purposes. First of all, it didn't put the president on Front Street. And then, secondly, it hopefully made it even more appealing to people who are not inclined to vote on issues presented by African-Americans.
CORNISH: On Front Street, meaning he wouldn't have to.
Right, the president would never have to use the word black; would never have to use the term African-Americans - he could talk about poverty. And every African-American in the country would understand that if you're talking about dealing with spending federal dollars based on persistent poverty, that African-Americans are going to benefit and they're going to benefit significantly.
Well, Congressman Cleaver, thank you so much for talking to us.
Good to be with you.
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
So what has this debate taught the next generation of young black political leaders trying to navigate between the politics of protest and the burgeoning attempts at so-called post racial dialogue today?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)
CORNISH: We visited Howard University here in Washington, D.C. to find out. The historically black university has turned out generations of top political talent.
SHAKEI HAYNES: Hello, hi. My name is Shakei Haynes. I am from Springfield, Massachusetts. I'm currently a political science major here at Howard University.
GAVETTE RICHARDSON: Hello, Gavette Richardson, a senior. Broadcast journalism major, political science minor and I'm also a member of the Howard University Debate Team.
KRYSTAL LEAPHART: Hi, Krystal Leaphart, senior, legal communications major from Detroit, Michigan. And I serve as president of the Howard University Chapter of the NAACP.
CORNISH: These students like what President Obama has done with Pell Grants and health care, allowing them to stay on their parents' insurance till they're 26. They also say that beyond any policy he enacted, President Obama has made a difference just by being in office.
RICHARDSON: This is Gavette. I think that people are more inspired. That's how I would say my life is different. And people see that they can, too, be successful and they can do something. So more so than even looking at the policies he's put in place that have tremendously affected African-Americans, you also can see that he's given hope to the people of the United States.
HAYNES: This is Shakei. Also, just the viability of the American dream. Like, there was once this glass ceiling to the American dream when it applied to African-Americans and just to have seen Barack Obama overcome every single obstacle and all cynicism and just prevail in the end, that's inspiring to us. And it kind of encourages us to keep on going.
CORNISH: Now, one thing we've heard from some black politicians that they feel like they can't criticize Obama.
HAYNES: I would agree with that. I would definitely say that if Obama fails then we all fail. And so, as a culture some of the things that we do regarding solidarity is we stand together. And any type of, you know, criticisms are done behind closed doors because if Obama fails, then, you know, the next black or brown person who wants to do what Obama did, it's going to be harder for them to make it.
CORNISH: So what happens when you have your first black president and people start talking about politics in terms of post-racial politics, not emphasizing race so much? Where does that leave young black leaders who are kind of going to the next generation and still want to talk about race or still want to talk about ways policies should affect the black community?
RICHARDSON: This is Gavette. I think there still is a place for young black leaders to still be able to talk about the issues that affect the black community. It's not necessarily one - well, we have a general leader now who may be the person to speak as in our parents' generation of Reverend Al Sharpton or Reverend Jesse Jackson. I do feel that it's still possible for leaders to talk about the issues that affect our community, but then, in a sense, still talk about what shapes our nation as a whole.
So if we look at what President Obama's been saying, I'm not the president of black America, I'm the president of the United States of America, that a leader of our generation will probably have to most likely be a person who looks at the entire nation, but still has a conscious heart of knowing the concerns of African-Americans.
CORNISH: Crystal, you're head of your NAACP chapter. I mean, where does that leave a young person who would still be interested in working with the NAACP?
CRYSTAL LEE PARK: I think that in regards to the NAACP question, we're an association for colored people, not in the sense just black people. When you think about the statistics and disparities all people of color suffer with certain disparity. So turning it into like a black/white issue is kind of what's got us into the predicament, in my opinion, now. I don't think that it totally leaves us in the dark as far as black issues, but just making sure that we keep those issues relevant and not letting them be on the curbside.
That's why we elect people that we do to make sure our issues are addressed.
CORNISH: Howard University students Crystal Lee Park, Gavette Richardson and Shakei Haynes. They, along with Congressman Cleaver, agree that the next black president might not have it so easy with black voters, but that what's important is that the possibility of a next black president is real. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.