Dear Mr. President:
For the past several days, I've been debating an issue regarding your administration with a few friends, all ardent supporters of yours. All of us have read your books; we've donated and voted for you in both 2008 and 2012. Some of us even volunteered for your campaign and we all resisted the urge to unsubscribe from your well-meaning, but relentless emails. One friend in particular, has over time become more and more frustrated with what he perceives to be your selective concern for citizens. He believes that while you may personally care about all Americans, your public concern is limited to specific groups, namely those who wield the most political weight and media opportunities. In short, he believes you have neglected the poor, who are often black and brown. My reflex was to defend you and I did. Yet, the more I discussed the issue with him and others and coupled it with research, I found myself struggling to continue to defend you in good faith.
By the close of the conversations, I felt compelled to address the problem head on by talking to you directly, Mr. Obama. After poring over data, my convictions give me no other choice. But first, I begin with a story:
The year I graduated from Howard University, Oprah Winfrey was the selected commencement speaker. Upon receiving her honorary degree, she made a remark through tear-streaked eyes that has stuck with me: “You can receive a lot of rewards in your life, but there is nothing better than to be honored by your own.”
You, Mr. President have received that distinct honor. As I’m sure you know, 96% and 93% of African-Americans voted for you in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Your supporters voted for you not simply because of your skin color, but because we believed – and continue to believe- that you are genuinely interested in moving the country towards one America, not a divided one. In many ways, you have not disappointed:
The first bill you signed into law was the Lily Ledbetter Act, safeguarding equal pay for women. You extended benefits to same sex domestic partners of federal employees. You certified the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a discriminatory policy against gays in the military. You became the first president to support marriage equality. You supported the DREAM Act, offering legality to undocumented minors. So as not to tire the reader, I will not attempt to outline the ethnic diversity of the appointments you’ve made – including the historic appointment of the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor. You have made sweeping changes and given a voice to groups not often represented in the political sphere.
Nevertheless, some communities continue to feel voiceless. There are still some communities who believe that their concerns, aspirations, and even their livelihood matter less. In all of the talk of the middle class, your administration and the public often sidelines the poor and those who are black and brown. While there are countless variables where one could find disparities between Blacks, Latinos and Whites, I’d like to focus on three that I believe require your immediate attention:
The median household income by ethnicity (rounded, 2009):
§ National: $50K
§ Whites: $52K
§ Asians: $65K
§ Blacks: $36K
§ Latinos: $38K
College graduation of high school graduates after six years by ethnicity (2010)
§ Asians: 69%
§ Whites: 62%
§ Latinos: 50%
§ Blacks: 39%
3. Gun Violence
§ Black children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths, but were only 15 percent of the total child population. (2008-2009)
§ Black males 15-19 were eight times as likely as White males of the same age to be killed in a gun homicide. (2008-2009)
The Great Recession affected nearly every family in some way; yet many people of color were hit especially hard. For example, in 2009, Black American families brought in $14,000 less than the national average – a significant sum during tough times. Income inequalities coupled with less education makes for a disastrous concoction, adding a significant barrier to entry into the middle class.
Yet the education and income statistics are not the ones that trouble me most. If America is unable to provide equal education and income opportunities for its citizens, at the very least, it should do its best to secure life. I am not a parent, but you are. I saw your very real reaction to the tragic deaths in Newtown. I shudder to think of how difficult it isfor parents who love their children as much you do, to send children out into neighborhoods rife with crime, gun violence, and what may seem like imminent death. A diversity of communities have felt the pain of a child gone much too soon; but the shadow of death darkens the sidewalks and alleys of Chicago, Oakland, Flint, Baltimore, Las Vegas and other cities with chilling consistency.
Mr. President, you have had the unfortunate task of comforting cities and families across this nation as they struggle to understand seemingly indiscriminate violence. You’ve spoken to distraught mothers in Newtown, shaken Bostonians, and stunned survivors in Aurora. While it didn’t bring back a life, your thoughtful eulogies, heartfelt embraces and simply your presence showed those individuals you cared. They knew in that moment, that the country stood beside them in their time of pain. But the violence isn’t indiscriminate. In a cruel twist, those neighborhoods most familiar with death are least familiar with attention.
My defense of you to my aforementioned friends was that "Barack Obama is the President of the entire United States, not merely the Black constituents." I pointed out that the push for gun safety has positive implications for all citizens of all backgrounds. I continued that a President couldn’t attend the funeral of every slain child in America. When I added that you have already been accused of “giving targeted [minority] groups a big gift,” it was then I realized that my arguments were falling flat on even my own ears.
You’re not running for reelection. Your critics will criticize you regardless of what you do. Your supporters will continue to respect you when you do what is right. When you supported marriage equality, you didn’t immediately become the “President of the Gays.” When you supported fairness for women’s pay, you weren’t perceived as “catering to women.” Sensible Americans simply considered you the president who cares.
I don’t believe I’m telling you anything you don’t already know. I also don’t believe that you can wield a magic wand and fix these problems. Black and Latino communities will have to do the hard work of improving the quality of life for their families. Community organizers, parents, law enforcement, local legislators, educators and others will need to work together. People will need to create solutions best suited to their unique needs. But I believe that with your platform, what you can provide is the most inexpensive thing to give. Attention.
So what do I propose as a solution? To start, acknowledge that there are real disparities between ethnic groups often fueled by socioeconomics that our country needs to address. From there, I suggest you consider legislation and initiatives to confront these problems. Your campaign effectively organized people to vote and spread your message; what if those same kinds of strategic yet grassroots efforts were used to organize on behalf of the least of these? I’m not happy with what America has accepted as “normal” for impoverished communities. Are you?
Your voice matters. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that a few months after you expressed support for same sex marriage, a majority of the country also supported it. A good friend of mine reminded me of the following: President Kennedy didn’t compel the country to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” simply because it was good rhetoric. He knew the influence his voice and the office wielded; it is the same influence you have. If you choose to use it, you won’t simply be helping the minorities of our country; you will ensure all of the country benefits from a diverse, educated, financially stable America. And that, Mr. President is your job.
Thank you for reading.
P.S.: Excellent job at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Conan who?
Editor's Note: While I have signed this letter, it was truly a group effort. Much of the insight and perspectives shared here have been provided by my brilliant circle - Mr. Lomax was the catalyst for the discussion, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Jackson intelligently challenged it, and Mr. Baker provided a journalistic assist.