April 15, 2009 / 5:28 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. blacks try to turn pride over Obama into gains

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Black American community workers are wrestling with how to translate their pride over Barack Obama’s presidency into tangible gains for a racial minority that often lags behind the rest of the country.

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Community organizations in America’s inner cities offer support to low-income people through soup kitchens, basic education, employment, homeless shelters and services for women and children.

Their role gained prominence during the 2008 presidential election because Obama made frequent references to his previous job as a community organizer in Chicago and argued it gave him insight into the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Many community workers say the election of the first African American president presents a unique opportunity but also a challenge: how to leverage the optimism generated by his example into something more than a few heartwarming stories.

The challenge is made more acute by the worst U.S. recession in decades, which researchers say has hit blacks harder because they have fewer assets, higher levels of unemployment and lower incomes than the national average.

That has increased demand for services among many charities serving African Americans while placing pressure on funding.

Interviews with community group leaders in U.S. cities show a mixed response to the question of whether Obama’s leadership was making a difference to their work on the ground.

Entrepreneur Frederick Moore, who financed a shelter for 20 homeless men in greater Chicago, said Obama’s election vindicated his initial commitment and had prompted him to rededicate himself to a project started years earlier.

“My entrepreneurial potential has been ignited ... by the new administration,” said Moore, speaking about the shelter in Hammond, Indiana.

Black Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but trail the country on a variety of social indexes including mortality rates, average income and health.

Many of those disparities are rooted in a history that includes slavery and the racial segregation in the U.S. South that spawned the civil rights movement.


Some conservatives criticize community groups arguing that they, along with government welfare payments, fail to promote self reliance among people on low incomes and instead foster a culture of dependence.

One community worker argues that the aging civil rights leaders and protesters who helped end segregation in the 1960s were now stifling the energy surrounding Obama, creating a split between the older generation and younger activists.

Latesia Coleman said that beyond an initial surge in enthusiasm since Obama’s election last November she has yet to see real change or more volunteers at the charity in Atlanta where she works to provide services to at-risk young people.

But Obama’s victory was helping to raise the self-esteem of people who for years had seen themselves as excluded from a society that prides itself on its ability to provide opportunity, said community workers in several cities.

The symbolism of Obama’s presidency was making a difference to young people at a youth development program in Washington, D.C., said Davidra Bazemore, who created the program after graduating from college in 2006.

She said a pregnant 15-year-old girl and her 17-year-old partner had rededicated themselves to learning to read and write in large part because of Obama.

“This couple is so enamored by what the Obamas stand for (and) the fact that the Obamas have two little girls that look like this young couple,” Bazemore said.

The fact that “there’s a black man with a wife who doesn’t have any children outside their marriage paints a picture for them that’s possible to obtain,” she said.

Black Americans, traditionally the most reliable ethnic constituency within the Democratic Party, voted overwhelmingly for Obama, a Democrat.

But in inner cities, some community workers said enthusiasm over Obama was tempered by deep-rooted skepticism over the capacity of any government to bring about positive change.

“People are guardedly skeptical. They have such negative experiences with government that they see it as a contradiction,” said Joseph Phelan of the Miami Workers Center.

Editing by Matthew Bigg

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