Did you know that there are many African Americans in the United States who believe that Barack Obama did not do anything for African Americans? It’s true. I am the co-host of a radio show that broadcasts on WVON 1690 AM on Fridays at 9:00 PM. The show broadcasts nationally over the internet, but the terrestrial radio broadcast is confined to the Chicagoland area. The majority of listeners are African American baby boomers. Their view of American politics and the Democratic Party spans from the 1960s, so their historical view of the Democratic Party includes some of its uglier history.
Often we have discussions about whom Americans should support in this November’s election. Given that the two choices are Donald Trump, who represents the Republican party, and Joe Biden who represents the Democratic Party, I and my co-host vociferously support Joe Biden (my co-host less enthusiastically than I) and the Democratic ticket. If you are a far right-wing conservative, you will support Donald Trump and his myriad transgressions notwithstanding. However, if you think fondly of the Obama years, you should undoubtedly support Joe Biden.
This is where my confusion comes in when having these conversations. There is a significant percentage of African Americans who believe that Barack Obama did not do enough and or anything for African Americans. Before we delve into the accomplishments of the Obama Administration, I think we need to explore how laws are written and what they can and cannot specifically say.
How Laws Are Written
For example did you know that the U.S. Constitution does not make any reference to Africans, blacks, or slaves? I know that sounds crazy since this country was founded on the free labor from Africans who were kidnapped from the continent of Africa, and brought to the United States. Please pay very special attention to what I wrote. The U.S. Constitution does not make reference to sex or race. The references in law that discuss these specific issues are in state law. Let’s take a deeper look.
The U.S. Constitution refers to slaves using three definitions: “other persons” (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3), “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), and a “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof” (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3). There is no language in the U.S. Constitution that specifically says, “Black Africans purchased and transported to the U.S. shall be slaves”. Law doesn’t work that way principally because there is an assumption in law that all people are treated equally. Based on this assumption you cannot write a federal law that is only applicable to specific people based on race or sex.
Even when you examine the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, here are no specific mentions of race. The 13th Amendment is referred to as the amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery. However, the 13th Amendment does not state for example that, “People of African descent shall hereby be granted their freedom.” If the amendment was worded in such a way, it would legally allow for the enslavement of other people who were not of African descent. Therefore, the law is written in an all-encompassing way that is applicable to everyone who resides in every state or territory of the United States.
Based on that concept, the 13th Amendment reads Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Notice how this is written. This amendment simply states that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States. If at the time of this writing you were a black person who was a slave residing in a state or territory in the United States, this amendment clearly states that the status of being a slave is now illegal. This might seem like a distinction without a difference since the only people who are slaves at the time were black people. Don’t be distracted by that. I want to make sure that we understand the legal principle behind how these laws are written.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution follows the same legal principle. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution reads All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. This amendment establishes birthright citizenship and by extension equal protection under the law to all persons. Again noticed that there is no reference to race. Because this amendment states all persons, and further states that being born in the United States confers citizenship, black people are automatically included.
Section 1 of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution reads The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This amendment builds on the previous two. The fourteenth Amendment states that if you’re born in the United States you are a citizen, and the 13th Amendment states that slavery is illegal. Therefore, this amendment without mentioning race gives black people the right to vote.
Even the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote follows this same legal principle. The 19th Amendment does not say that women will now have the right to vote. Instead the 19th Amendment reads The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Again this might seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is important to remember that if this amendment specifically said that women have the right to vote, then the converse is that men do not have the right to vote. Instead the amendment simply states that sex cannot be used as a reason to deny a citizen the right to vote. While this amendment was written specifically to allow women the right to vote, it reinforces the right to vote for black people (the 14th Amendment defined citizenship as an automatic process based on being born in the United States).
This might not seem germane to the opening conversation about what Barack Obama did specifically for black people, but it is important that we understand the framework in which laws are written before we can have an educated discussion about the Obama years and how they did or did not help black people. I hope we have established why laws written at the federal level cannot make specific reference to sex or race.
Now that we have an understanding on how to evaluate the efficacy of laws passed during the Obama years, let’s take a deeper look. Let’s begin with healthcare.
The Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. More than 20 million more Americans have been able to obtain health insurance since the passage of this law. This law extends protections to Americans by denying insurors the right to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. This was a huge benefit to the African-American community. African Americans tend to have higher levels of diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and other maladies that are disproportionately higher compared to other races, and were routinely either dropped from health insurance coverage or charged much higher premiums due to these conditions. The Affordable Care Act ended those abuses by insurance companies.
In addition the law established free annual preventive care, allowed children to remain on their parent’s insurance until age 26, and banned annual and lifetime caps on benefits. In the first 5 years of this law the uninsured rate fell from 16% to 9%. Remember that federal laws cannot be written that specifically mention race or sex. That said the passage of this law helped millions of African Americans obtain health insurance who otherwise would not have had it.
The Great Recession
The end of the Bush years in 2008 saw a huge contraction in the United States economy. The stock market declined, the mortgage industry collapsed, and unemployment skyrocketed to over 10%. That might seem like a very novel experience given what we’re going through today. At the time 10% unemployment had not been seen since the Great Depression.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated over $787 billion dollars of stimulus funds to spur economic recovery. In October 2016 the US economy had added 15.5 million jobs, which was at the time 73 consecutive months of private sector job growth. In addition unemployment dropped from its peak of 10% in 2009 to 4.6% in November 2016.
Obviously African-Americans were impacted during that time of explosive growth in unemployment. Remember federal laws cannot be written that specifically refer to sex or race. However, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 helped African Americans regain their economic footing after the economy crashed at the end of George W. Bush’s second term.
The American Auto Industry
In 2007 black people represented 14.2% of the jobs in the American Auto industry. That doesn’t include the sales positions at car lots, the black people who worked as mechanics, or in general positions affiliated with service and repair. The Auto industry took a huge hit as a result of the Great Recession. People weren’t buying cars new or used. This means that a lot of Americans got laid off, and as is the case in most recessions, more black people lost their jobs.
In 2009 the Obama Administration injected $62 billion dollars into the automotive industry. Furthermore, the Obama Administration had the foresight to obtain equity positions in these auto companies. The idea was simple. As the Auto industry began to rebound, and stock prices began to rise, the United States taxpayer would be repaid the money that was loaned to rescue the Auto industry. By December 2014, the car companies had repaid $70.4 billion of the funds, and the Center for Automotive Research estimated that 2.5 million jobs were saved.
Coronavirus has caused most, if not all students K-12 and in college, to return home and attend school via the Internet. I am not going to discuss ubiquitous access to broadband and or high-speed internet here. However, at the beginning of the Obama Administration there was then a new buzzword in the American lexicon. Net Neutrality.
It was difficult for most people to understand the campaign at the time. The question then was are you in favor of or against net neutrality. Even now as I type this it is easy to understand how one might think that they are in favor of one position, but communicated it in an opposite way. They could have just made this entire subject simpler by simply rephrasing it as Internet neutrality, or internet access for all, or something like that.
Basically, companies wanted to create toll roads on the internet based on traffic. Think of it like this. Tens of millions of people use Netflix everyday, especially now when people are telecommuting and sheltering in place all over the country. If net neutrality had been defeated, companies like Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and AT&T could charge a toll every time you went to watch a movie on Netflix. But it’s even more insidious than that. Think of the president who we have today in Donald Trump. Imagine if net neutrality had failed. Donald Trump could conceivably charge a huge toll to go to MSNBC.com, CNN.com, or the washingtonpost.com just because he doesn’t like the way that those news organizations have covered him and his administration. Trump, or someone like him, could effectively eviscerate the protections of the press that are enjoyed under the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Barack Obama and his administration had the foresight to know that left to their own devices, internet service providers could take advantage of the American people. If Comcast wanted customers to go to their website that competes against Netflix, and since Comcast is an internet service provider, all they would have to do is charge a toll to access Netflix that would be waived if you decided to go to Comcast’s movie website.
The Obama Administration took these internet service providers to court through the FCC and the courts blocked the ability of internet service providers to favor access to one type of content over another. In the end this means that if you are a small business who sells your products on the internet, a content provider, a blog writer, or just someone who likes to create videos and post them to YouTube, neither you nor the people who come to your website have to pay more money then any large multi-billion-dollar company. Net neutrality creates a level playing field everywhere, and it treats the internet as a commodity that should belong to everyone. Remember, and I hate to be redundant, federal laws cannot make specific reference to race or sex. However, the stance that the Obama Administration took on net neutrality helped African Americans who use the internet as a means to make a living and allowed equal unfettered access to information.
Before Barack Obama became president, there was a huge disparity in sentencing based on drug offenses. The most glaring was the difference in sentences given based on cocaine or crack. For the most part cocaine has always been a drug for the more affluent due in large part because it is more expensive. Crack cocaine however was a scourge that set the inner city and urban communities of America blaze in the 80s and 90s.
People who buy and sell cocaine for the most part trend White. People who buy and sell crack for the most part trend Black. This reality was reflected in the sentencing differences that white and black people received. This might sound like a contradiction of everything I have discussed in this piece up until now. But remember when people go to court for a drug charge, they are appearing in State Court.
So the disparity in sentencing between a white man being charged with selling cocaine, and a black man being charged with selling crack in the same amount was often 100 to 1. Not only did the Obama Administration reduce the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1, they successfully lobbied the United States Sentencing Commission to apply those measures retroactively, which contributed to the largest decrease in the federal prison population in over thirty years.
You can read more about other accomplishments that were achieved during the Obama years here.
We have a choice this November. If you like Donald Trump and what he has done to or for the United States in 3.5 years, he’s your choice. If you are in disagreement with everything that Donald Trump has done like I am, and you fondly remember the Obama years, then Joe Biden is the only and obvious choice.
Trump’s economy had failed. The stock market is not the refuge it once was. Unemployment is the highest it has been since the last Republican president we had or the Great Depression take your pick. We are a laughing stock on the world stage as Trump muses aloud whether we should inject disinfectant or put powerful lights inside our bodies to deal with Coronavirus.
Let’s return to a familiar place of the safety, respect, and prosperity that Barack Obama’s vice president can lead us to again. This November vote blue. Vote for Joe Biden.