The State of the Black Union: What Obama’s Speech Means for African-Americans

In his sixth annual State of the Union address, President Obama touched on a number of subjects that reflect the broad themes of his administration’s goals for the final two years of his presidency, from education to immigration to healthcare.

And while all Americans could take something away from his January 20 address, there was one community that likely wanted to find meaning in Obama’s speech more than any other: the African-American community.

Following several months of unrest, protest and even violence that has swept the country in the wake of repeated examples of police brutality against African-Americans gone unpunished, many blacks were likely looking for a sign of acknowledgement, an assurance that things were going to get better.

“I really want him to say that he hears us or that he openly cares about us and what we’re fighting for,” Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis, an organizer of last year’s protests in Ferguson, MO, told MSNBC in the days before the speech.

While Obama has recently signed an executive order calling for the review of police militarization, and has placed his support behind offering federal funding for police body cameras, his words in the State of the Union took a more middle-of-the-road angle, offering sympathy to both the black community and to law enforcement.

“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” Obama said. “But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.”

Still, Obama offered a message of hope in the fact that America’s crime and incarceration rates have both reached their lowest levels in 40 years, the sign of a more reformed criminal justice system.

Cherrell Brown, an activist and organizer in New York City, told MSNBC that the reality of being an African-American isn’t as optimistic as Obama’s speech made it seem, however.

“Black lives are devalued here in America. The system is egregiously racist and the badges of slavery ares still evident in the system,” she said.

Another key area African-Americans were paying attention to during Obama’s address was his report on America’s economic recovery.

And indeed, Obama was highly optimistic about the economy during his speech, confirming that “the state of the union is strong” for the first time in his presidency, Politico reported. In 2015, experts are predicting that the U.S. economy will deliver its strongest growth since the end of the recession. The labor market will continue to add jobs, and capital expenditures are expected to accelerate.

But as Obama hailed a resurgence of the middle class in his speech, wages for black Americans relative to whites’ wages have fallen to their lowest since 1980, according to a January 26 Truthout article. Household wealth for African-Americans has crumbled to the point where it’s statistically impossible for it to come close to white household wealth.

The clear reason why Obama failed to touch on these pressing issues during his State of the Union speech is because he was addressing all of America, not just the black community — he needed to deliver a message that would appeal to the more moderate, centrist side of the country.

And maybe there’s only so much that one man can do to eliminate an entire systemic, institutional racism that is resulting in black death and poverty. But it might have been nice for the country’s first black president to have pledged to do more for his own community.

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