Black Community Sets High Bar for Obama

Excitement over historic moment is tempered by hopes for the future.

Jan. 19, 2009— -- Following the outpouring of pure, unadulterated emotion from black Americans after voters elected Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president, black leaders are ready to see how he will address chronic issues that affect their communities.

To many blacks, Obama's breakthrough is greater than Jesse Owens' sprinting to Olympic victory in Nazi Germany or Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., nearly jumped out of her seat as she sought to describe her emotion on Election Night.

"It is 'wow,' it is 'oh, my goodness,'" she said.

"The word 'devotion' is too tame a word ... It's almost a frenzied love that this new president will have from the African American community."

Roger Wilkins, a retired professor of history at George Mason University, elaborated on that sentiment: "To see a black man elected president of the United States gave them hope, as in places where hope doesn't visit very often."

But in those places of little hope in the African American community, severe, chronic problems run deep.

Blacks die of homicide at a rate six times that of their white counterparts. African Americans make up 13 percent of the nation's population, but comprise nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated. And blacks are twice as likely to drop out of school as whites.

When you add in higher rates of AIDS and poverty, the ugly list grows longer. The question is: what, if anything more, can or should President Obama do that his predecessors did not?

Activist and talk show host Tavis Smiley said it's a delicate balance.

"We've still got to find a way to juxtapose these two realities: our celebration and, yet, the quagmire that we find ourselves in."

Students at historically black Howard University said they're not sure Obama should or would target these chronic issues.

"One of the things we have to bear in mind is that he's not just the president of the African American community," said senior Chris Buckner. "He's the president of the United States, which has a lot of different communities ... He never really ran on race-specific issues."

Tavis Smiley: "Now Is the Time"

Some, like sophomore Jared Smith, struck the middle ground.

"He'll be sensitive to them," he said, "but he won't be too accommodating to the point where he's giving the African American community a free pass or any more treatment than any other demographic."

Expressing hope that Obama will aggressively attack the persistent problems, sophomore Flynne Bailey said, "I feel like he has an obligation to the black community."

Some black leaders believe Obama will -- and must -- address these issues.

"Even if the politics didn't require him to do it, his soul would not permit him to run away from this agony," said Wilkins. "He cannot get into the White House and then pretend he's a white person and that he never heard of this poverty and he doesn't know about the imbalances."

"Oh, I think the new president has a unique responsibility to speak to the most troubling issues in the African American community, and I think he knows it," Norton agreed.

Some black leaders expect Obama to direct more resources to these problems, but that he will also challenge blacks to be more involved. During the campaign, Obama talked about black fathers missing in action.

"We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception," he said.

"There are very few African Americans or whites that could get away with saying what he said in that church that day," Norton said.

Still, beyond symbolism, some black leaders say African Americans believe Obama must be held accountable.

"There was this sense in black America -- let's stay quiet, let the brother win. When he gets in, then we can raise these issues," said Smiley. "Well, now is the time. We'll see what kind of response we get from the Obama administration."

For many African Americans, it's been a very long wait.