By Kam Williams, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Kam Williams: What inspired you to publish “Are We Better Off?”
Julian Malveaux: People will be talking about the Obama legacy for decades, and I wanted to include my voice in the analysis of this presidency. This is a column collection, or as one colleague called it, “history in real time,” recounting my perspective on the highs and lows of this presidency from an African-American perspective. More than simply a column collection, the book has a substantial introduction that frames the Obama presidency, explores the way Obama was treated by the political establishment and also how this first black president treated “his” people. In the epilogue, I use numbers to tell the story of African-American gains and losses during this presidency.
KW: How did you decide which articles to include in the book?
JM: Wow! … It was quite a process to narrow more than 400 columns down to 80. I write weekly, though, and I don’t always write about President Obama, so that was the easy elimination. Sometimes, I repeat myself, and that was a second elimination. I worked with a team, including a great editor who, as the project came together, suggested other additions and eliminations. …
KW: Well, are we better off after eight years of Obama?
JM: The economy is better than the one President Obama inherited, and unemployment is lower, but the unemployment rate gap remains large. Black child poverty is higher. As I write in the epilogue, “Yes we can. No he didn’t. President Obama didn’t push black people backward, but he missed the opportunity to move us forward.”
KW: In the introduction, you ask, “How does President Obama treat his people?” before criticizing him for not reciprocating the overwhelming support he’s received from the African-American electorate. You say, “He scolds instead of uplifts, and offers tepid gestures to our needs.” What do you think he could have done in terms of jobs, housing and education?
JM: If some of the recovery money had gone to cities instead of states, the urban population, read “black” and “brown,” would be better off with recovery jobs. While the banks got big bailouts, a sizeable chunk of African-American wealth evaporated because so many people lost homes. Some of the federal programs to help homeowners were never fully implemented. And President Obama’s pick of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education was abysmal. Cutting HBCUs was unconscionable. Implementing new regulations on Parent Plus loans, which cost HBCUs 28,000 students, was hostile.
At the same time, it is important to note that, except for his first two years, which were a missed opportunity, President Obama faced rabid opposition from the Republicans. Indeed, as soon as he took office, Sen. Mitch McConnell announced that his top priority was to deny President Obama a second term. The president did introduce a jobs bill that could not clear Congress. The Republicans simply would not work with him.
KW: What about all the black-on-black violence in so many inner cities across the country. Do you really think the president could have put a dent in it from Washington, DC? After all, his own chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, became mayor of Chicago, and the body count has only escalated there?
JM: President Obama’s choice of Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff was questionable, and perhaps cover-ups around the police violence against black people in Chicago is reflective of Mr. Emmanuel’s values. Did Rahm Emmanuel serve President Obama or did he serve himself as he prepared to run for mayor of Chicago? I don’t use the term black-on-black violence, since I’ve never heard the term white-on-white violence. Most violence is intra-racial, and much of the violence in African-American communities is a function of drug availability, joblessness and poverty. Obviously these conditions predate the Obama presidency and the president has limited ways to dent this violence. But funding war weapons in cities, as opposed to more community policing, is not the solution.
KW: What about the issue of blacks as the victims of violence by police and vigilantes like George Zimmerman? Do you think Obama could have done more for Trayvon Martin than to say that he could’ve been his son?
JM: President Obama did put together a task force on 21st Century Policing, led by Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey, to look at some of these issues after Ferguson. The task force didn’t produce any earth-shattering findings but it suggests that this matter is on the president’s radar screen. However, this is an issue that persists. In the first week of July, we already saw two black men killed by police in questionable circumstances, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in a Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
Trayvon Martin could have been any of our sons, so I was not especially moved by that remark of President Obama’s. He intended, I think, to say that he took Trayvon’s death somewhat personally. He might have said more about “stand your ground” laws and how they give vigilantes a pass. And he might say more about these rogue cops and their license to kill. Although he was in Poland to participate in the NATO conference, President Obama did respond well to the back-to-back killings, as well as to the attacks on Dallas police officers that followed. I especially appreciated hearing the President affirm that “black lives matter” and that it means that some citizens are feeling more pain, and experiencing more negative effects than others, and he offered up the stats. He also indicated that black lives matter does not negate the fact that blue lives matter. He ably walked the tightrope, here, between affirming both black life and police life.
KW: It seems that Obama will be better remembered for LGBT than African-American civil rights. If Trayvon had been transgender, do you think the Attorney General would have charged George Zimmerman with a federal crime?
JM: Let me answer the question another way. The President became quite emotional about transgender student rights, threatening to pull Department of Education funds from school districts that do not comply with federal regulations. Black children are suspended from school three times more than white children are, and there is no evidence that black children are three times as unruly. Has the President ever threatened to pull the Department of Education dollars from a school with these disproportionate suspensions? African-Americans have rarely been the beneficiaries of Presidential rhetorical excess.
KW: When you interviewed Obama, his staff wouldn’t let him talk about reparations. What did that tell you about him?
JM: This was in 2004, and it told me that President Obama intended to be very careful and noncontroversial in addressing race matters. It is now 2016, and I’m not sure that I’ve heard the President address that matter yet. I serve on the Institute of the Black World’s National Commission on African-American Reparations, and we have asked the President to, by executive order, establish a commission to study reparations. He can do this without Congressional approval. While I am not optimistic, I do hope that President Obama considers this in these waning months of his Presidency.
KW: In the book, you suspect that Obama’s image as a community organizer in Chicago might be more a “manufactured mythology” than a “gritty reality.” Have you done any research to determine whether he developed roots and maintained ties to folks he worked with in the hood?
JM: I’ve talked to dozens of Chicagoans who will only go off the record in talking about the manufactured mythology. The published record will show that many in Chicago have mixed feedback on the President’s role as organizer.
KW: You also talk about how outspoken critics of Obama, like Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, have ended up ostracized by the black community. Do you think this has a had a chilling effect, and did it make you less willing to disagree with the President?
JM: Tavis Smiley lost lots of corporate support after he was critical of President Obama, and Dr. West has lost some esteem. I think that Smiley and West come at the President somewhat differently though, and find some of West’s criticism too personal and base to be credible. Still, the way they were treated has caused many to bridle their tongues when discussing President Obama. I had my own challenges with the Obamaites when, in 2008, appearing on a program with Tavis and Cornel, I gave then-candidate Obama’s nomination acceptance speech a B. At the time I was President of Bennett College for Women, and actually had disgruntled members of the public write my board of trustees and faculty, and address me in ugly and disparaging terms, including black women calling me the N-word. Ugliness does not bridle my tongue, and while some of the consequences of being an honest critic of this President have been unpleasant, I can manage. Don’t get me wrong. As I write in the book, I do not regret either of my votes for President Obama, nor my support of him when he ran for the Senate before that. I get excited as I ever did when I see that black man on Air Force One. But I won’t settle for symbolism, and our President’s record should be open for analysis.
KW: Do you think the African-American agenda might have been placed on the Obama administration’s back burner because of a hesitancy on the part of black leaders to question or criticize the President?
JM: Absolutely! You will not get fed in your mama’s house if you do not bring your plate to the table. Some of our leadership has been so happy to be there that they haven’t pushed our agenda. I don’t know how many off the record conversations I’ve had with African-American leaders who would not be quoted and refused to make their sentiments public.
KW: What grade would you give Obama?
JM: Depending on the day of the week it varies. At the moment, though there are just a few months left in our President’s time in the Oval Office I’d like to give him an incomplete and hope he surprises me. Actually, overall he gets a solid B, but for his work with Black America he gets a low C, at best.