Every (Black Man) an Obama?

Almost immediately after Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, conservative pundits quickly shifted gears from predicting calamity to heralding the dawn of a post-racial society. Ah, if only it were so.

It’s a cruel jujutsu of politics and sociology to listen to those voices, declaring that racism is dead and all is dandy across the land because of one election. Setting aside the tremendous historic accomplishment and emotional satisfaction, President Obama’s election didn’t lift the place of black Americans. For black men, in particular, a host of disparities continue to affect their life choices and chances despite the example of President Obama in the White House.

Recognizing the disconnect between perception and reality on this matter, my colleague Joy Moses organized a panel discussion titled Everyone Isn’t Obama: Black Men and Social Policy to examine how one black man’s success is no reason to assume that we no longer must think about disparities impacting black men when crafting public policies. The discussion stems from Waldo E. Johnson Jr.’s important new book, Social Work with African American Males: Health, Mental Health, and Social Policy, which is a collection of reports on the plight of black men written by highly regarded scholars and social workers with hands-on experience with their subject material.

Moses, a Senior Policy Analyst with American Progress’s Poverty and Prosperity program, invited Johnson and some of the contributors to his book to discuss their findings. She said the Washington-centric worlds of policy and politics have dabbled only sporadically in recent years into the discouraging social condition of some black men.

As Johnson’s book makes clear, black men are less likely to graduate from high school than white men. Black men’s lack of access to health care accounts for a life expectancy of 65.8 years, which is less than the 76.5 years for all U.S. ethnic and racial groups. And, most shockingly to me, Johnson notes that mental health issues are the ones most overlooked and ignored among black men. “The onset of chronic stress, depression, somatization and other forms of mental illness may be linked to particular social circumstances, including but not limited to experiences with racism/discrimination, homelessness, incarceration, poverty, and substance abuse,” he writes.

During the Bush administration, some conservative social activists saw political opportunity in making an effort to address some of these issues. By offering federal grants to faith-based efforts aimed at fathers, the administration sought to make marriage a tool to addressing absent fathers and abandoned children in low-income and black communities. This effort offered simplistic notions about the barriers and real social pressures that some beleaguered black men face. It also alarmed many, including feminists groups who feared the government was, in effect, forcing couples to stay together even when their romantic relationships had ended.

All too often, Moses told me, people behind such policy recommendations—politicians, policy wonks, and think-tank experts—often lacked necessary and practical knowledge about the people for whom they were imposing their experimental ideas. “The voices of social workers and other knowing experts weren’t represented enough in the D.C. conversations,” she explains. “And, obviously, there weren’t many men of color talking as experts. That needs to happen a lot more because there should be room for everyone to contribute to the dialogue.”

If our nation ever is to approach that illusive goal of post-racial America, it must find a credible solution to the lingering disparities that burden the poor and other traditionally disadvantaged groups. The ideas can’t be imposed by those who see only political solutions to a dire situation without getting up close and personal with the people in need.

And, to be sure, it won’t happen by wishing and hoping on the pseudo-symbolism of one man—even if that man is the first black president of the United States.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.