State of the Union: Business as Usual, Racial Disparities Ignored

By Lawrence Ware

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama articulated his desire for 2014 to be a “year of action.”  Much of what he said was heartening. For example, he spoke passionately about the need for America to move past a “Mad Men” approach to economics and gender:

Women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work.

While I applaud his statement, I would have liked to hear more about how, for women of color, conditions are significantly worse. He is correct that women on the average make 77 cents for every male dollar; however, he failed to point out the fact that for African American women it’s 64 cents and for Latino women it’s 55 cents.

President Obama also discussed his concern about student debt:

We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.

These words are encouraging, but he did not expand this program as DSA and YDS have demanded.  I am less hopeful about the willingness of Congressional leaders to address skyrocketing student debt fueled by rising tuition prices. But if they want to lead, a good place to start would be to examine the bankruptcy laws that fail to include student debt.

A substantial part of the State of the Union speech addressed economic inequality.  In addition to calls for ladders into the middle class through education, he argued for raising the minimum wage:

Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember: ten-ten. This will help families. It will give businesses customers more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.

He’s right on this point. Wages are stagnant and have kept pace with neither inflation nor corporate profits. While $10.10 is still well below where it needs to be, it is a step in the right direction.  The executive order is only the first step. If Congress does not move to expand and concretize this raise, millions will be left behind and the economy will not get the boost it needs.

President Obama did not substantially address poverty in America, and not a word was said about the prison-industrial complex. He communicated center-left ideas with center-right rhetoric. He was neither aggressive nor prophetic. One word captures the tone of this address: conciliatory. President Obama has shown himself to be a great orator, but an acquiescent negotiator.

Last night reminds us why progressive and radical organizations are still needed.

Eleanor Roosevelt once told the story of what FDR said in response to A. Phillip Randolph’s passionate plea for the president to side with “the negro fight for justice.”  President Roosevelt said, “”You know, Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. … But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.”

It is clear that substantial gains will not be had unless we hold the president and our congressional leaders accountable. We must be a voice for the voiceless, and force our leaders to protect the interests of all people, not just the corporate elites.

We have to make them do it.

President Obama said that “It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy.” Until we force President Obama to put weight behind his rhetoric, it’s just business as usual.

Lawrence_Ware.jpgLawrence Ware (@law_ware) is a professor and lecturer in philosophy at Oklahoma State University; a pastor of Christian education at the Prospect Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City; a member of the Choctaw Nation; and a member of DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.