This week, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett appeared at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in New Orleans. During her appearance, Jarrett reiterated the deep affection and appreciation that President Obama has for the African American community. Jarrett stated that President Obama has “genuine love” for the Black community and that he is proud of being Black. She also responded to questions from those who felt that there is no pleasing African Americans who have the audacity to ask the president to actually do something for Black Americans.
When I process Jarrett’s remarks, I first wonder what Black people she is referring to when she says that President Obama has a “genuine love.” If she is referring to Black people who went to Harvard, are part of the Chicago elite and vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, then the answer is a resounding “yes.” President Obama and his wife made a special trip to Chicago to attend the wedding of Jarrett’s daughter, Laura. The Black elite have benefited hand-somely from the Obama presidency, in the way that a Congolese warlord might benefit when oil companies come and extract resources from underneath the people.
But if Jarrett is referring to the hundreds of thousands of families that are waiting for the president to use his power of the pardon to keep his campaign promise to help alleviate the pain of mass incarceration, then the answer is “hell no.” To date, President Obama, the Black man with the power to help countless families who’ve been ripped apart due to the War on Drugs (which he has admitted to being a colossal failure), has pardoned fewer men and women than former President George W. Bush (oh yeah, whites are also heavily favored in Presidential pardons, you can’t blame this one on Congress).
I’m not sure if Jarrett or Obama has shown that they care for families like that of Maria Lloyd, the young woman who wrote an open letter to Judge Marvin Aspen, the man who sentenced her father to 15 life sentences for a non-violent first offense related to powder cocaine distribution. Maria writes about the intense pain of seeing her family torn apart as a little girl and how her brother was murdered after growing up without having a father to guide and protect him. I wonder how deep the Jarrett/Obama love is for families like Maria’s, whose loved ones rot away in prison as our politicians sip lattes on the beltway preparing for the next black tie social.
If you happen to be among the millions of African Americans suffering from Black unemployment rates that are higher than they’ve been under any president in the last 20 years, then you have reason to be suspicious of Jarrett’s romantic overtures. When the White House has been repeatedly asked if there should be targeted policy for urban areas hardest hit by unemployment, the White House has been as quiet as a church mouse. The last time I checked, when you love someone, you speak about it proudly and with confidence. A man can’t say that he loves a woman if he is afraid to say her name in public (just ask Beyonce).
It’s not as if Jarrett and Obama won’t gladly use the bully pulpit in a self-serving manner. The White House spoke proudly in favor of gay marriage just a month ago. Right before that, women’s rights were pushed to the forefront of the national dialogue. Most recently, the Obama White House signed an executive order giving immunity to 800,000 illegal immigrants who came to the US before the age of 16.
I dare say that Valerie Jarrett, in all of her and Obama’s alleged love for the African American community, cannot point to any bold stand that the White House has taken for African Americans that is equivalent to what they’ve done for the gay community, Latinos or women’s rights groups. But if we are ignorant enough to simply buy what a politician sells us and not require them to engage in action to prove it, then we deserve nothing more than second-class citizenship.
Valerie, talk is cheap, which is why politicians such as yourself like to do so much of it. If I owe someone money and can repay my entire debt by saying “I love you,” then I will always be happy to give them words instead of action. Genuine love is communicated through activity and policy, not a bunch of woulda-coulda-shouldas. If I say that I care deeply for my mother and then let her starve to death on the street, some would say that my actions are not consistent with my words. So, when you say that you and President Obama love Black America, while Black children die from gun violence, Black families suffer from unprecedented unemployment and Black families are tortured via mass incarceration that can be alleviated by executive action, then your words are as empty as any other politician in Washington.
The most damning challenge for the Obama Administration is that they cannot find reliable proof that the quality of life for Black folks has improved under their regime. The ad-ministration has been missing in the lives of Black people like an absentee father who only shows up on birthdays to say “I’ve been thinking about you.” I can’t imagine Valerie being satisfied if her new son-in-law said, “Laura, I love you, but I’m sleeping with other women.”
No different from the parent who has neglected their responsibility or the man who uses smooth words to seek instant forgiveness, the administration can’t simply show up at election time and ask Black America to “have its back.” Loyalty gets what loyalty gives, and you’ve been missing in action.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To receive Dr. Boyce commentary in your email.