I Too Sing America: Barack Obama, The State Of The Union, And Black Folk

The most frustrating kind of mental gymnastics black people in America must commit themselves to mastering is the deft championing of what President Barack Obama has done to lift this nation from the depths of despair, while still being utterly disappointed with what he has done for Black America.

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This almost inexplicable conundrum is perhaps our history’s most potent example of W.E.B. Du Bois’s duality. That dual consciousness Du Bois wrote of has reached its full maturity in our current president. Having listened to and read Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union, I can’t help but think about the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve taken to the streets in the last six months. I can’t help but think about all the people who have expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the current state of our union.

President Obama ignored all of those citizens tonight. We the people, must not.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been the most sustained fight for social justice our country has seen in the last 50 years. Still in its infancy, it has already produced one hugely important piece of legislation in H.R. 1447, the Death In Custody Act of 2013.

This new law, signed by President Obama on December 18, 2014, requires that all law enforcement agencies in this country report statistics on the police shootings and deaths that occur at their hands. The bill was signed with very little notoriety or media attention despite the fact that, in our country, we have no idea how many people are killed by police officers each year and despite the fact that we do know that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than their white counterparts.

Absent this law, individual police departments aren’t required to report to the federal government how many times their officers use deadly force or how often individuals die in their custody. There are around 17,000 law enforcement agencies in America. According to the Washington Post, approximately 750 of those actually self-report the amount of times deadly force is used by their officers. Since 2008, those 750 law enforcement agencies reported killing around 400 civilians per year. When you consider that there are over 16,000 agencies whose data is not reflected in the reporting — the true number could be frighteningly astronomical – especially for black folk.

H.R. 1447 passed with unanimous consent. Congress didn’t even have to vote on it. It was a moral imperative for our country and one of the few examples of true bipartisan cooperation in a congress that has essentially been gridlocked from the first day President Obama took office. The law that inspired H.R. 1447 was one that had expired in 2006. For the last seven years, Rep. Bobby Scott (D. VA) has been fighting to get it back on the books. No one will say this, but what pushed it over the hump last year was the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

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It matters that that happened in 2014 and that it was completely absent from President Obama’s 2015 State Of The Union.

This doesn’t take away from all of his success. It doesn’t take away from the fact that he has pulled our country from the malaise and disrepair he inherited from George W. Bush. The economy has rebounded. Gas prices are low, as is unemployment; the stock market is breaking new records every single week. The Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have essentially concluded. Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive, as Joe Biden famously intoned. The state of our union is strong, unless you live in Black America.

In Black America, the unemployment rate is still more than twice the national average as is the kind of long term unemployment rate that slips through the cracks of most national polls. The black/white wealth gap is as distinct as it has ever been. Black men are still incarcerated at higher rates than any other group of people in this country. And while violent crime has decreased all over America it has done so at significantly slower rates in black communities than anywhere else. Black students still face a disproportionately difficult struggle to make it through college and black families who’ve managed to ascend into the mythical middle class are often still one major life event away from a return to poverty.

Worst of all, the specter of government ignored and seemingly sanctioned police violence is still the cumulonimbus cloud looming over our neighborhoods and communities, blotting out – for far too many – any rays of hope.

At this year’s State of the Union, all of the major marginalized groups in this country got special, individual mention of their, specific policy issues. From undocumented immigrants and immigration reform, to women and equal pay, to LGBTQ equality. They all got specific mention, and that is a great thing. Still, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has dominated cities across this country, which has been the number one story in the news cycle for months, and which has its roots in America’s history of government sanctioned terrorism was completely left off the table.

Throughout his presidency, and as evidenced in the above clip from his 2014 end of year press conference, Obama has consistently addressed Black America through the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory of policy making. The problem with that is that the rising tide has never, in the history of this country, lifted the boats of black America. It’s why we needed the Thirteenth Amendment even though the concept of freedom is supposed to be woven into our country’s DNA. It’s why the Civil Rights Act needed to be passed even though everything in it should have been covered in the constitution’s Bill of Rights. It’s why we needed the Voting Rights Act even though, at the time it was passed, all the people it covered technically already had the right to vote. It’s why the suburban boom of the 50’s never made its way to black communities, because FDR’s ‘New Deal’ and the G.I. Bill both purposely left just enough space for blacks to slip through the cracks. America’s rising tide has never, ever lifted black boats. Touching the everyday lives of most Black Americans has always required specific policy making. That is our nation’s history.

This is what #BlackLivesMatter is all about. This is why thousands of men and women across the country laid themselves down staging “die-ins” in transit centers and malls across the country. It’s why activists young and old interrupted brunches and stood in front of traffic on busy highways. For brief moments, these young patriots helped bystanders and onlookers experience the kind of discomfort and fear so many in Black and Brown America are forced to live with in perpetuity.

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All of this matters. It also matters that #BlackLivesMatter hasn’t been a flash-in-the-pan demonstration that sparked and fizzled in the days immediately following a particular police killing or grand jury decision. It hasn’t been co-opted and watered down by attention seeking celebrity activists (try as they may). It wasn’t derailed by beheadings in the middle east, a terrorist attack in France, or even the murder of two police officers here in the United States. Those were all tragedies of the highest order. But if we are to truly internalize and grabble with what we’ve seen in our streets over the last six months, then a tragedy so too are the conditions in our country that, for many, make a statement like #BlackLivesMatter so specific and so imperative. And it is why the President’s unspecific, assimilative interpolation, “Your Life Matters,” was not only unfortunate, but also offensive.

The State of the Union is not just a speech. It isn’t the opening of a presidential library or the decommissioning of an elderly warship. The State of the Union is our president’s official accounting of the events of a particular year for our country’s historical record. And in that way, President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union was great. It was him reminding us all just how far we’ve come… how far he’s almost singlehandedly brought us. But in beginning his victory lap, I will never forget that a movement that defined much of the year 2014, that inspired millions of Americans, and that forced our nation to confront its ideals was relegated by our first black president to a mere footnote in history.

So until we get to the point where we can, as a nation, say together with confidence #BlackLivesMatter, I’m gonna do what I’ve always done: stay low and keep firing.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

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