Opinion: President Obama should address black Americans in State of the Union

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 2/12/2013, 3:33 p.m.
Tonight, our nation's first black president will deliver the first State of the Union of his historic second term. The ...
President Barack Obama

By Van Jones

CNN Contributor

Tonight, our nation's first black president will deliver the first State of the Union of his historic second term. The time has come for him to say something about the disproportionate pain that his most loyal voting bloc - black Americans - are experiencing today.

Winning two successive elections hasn't just proven that this nation is great enough to rise above the racial discrimination of its very recent past. It's also opened the door to more frank conversations about continuing racial challenges in America.

Just look at the fierce debate over immigration going on in America today. We have progressed to the point where commentators and politicians freely discuss how to court "the Latino vote." They happily and eagerly insist that politicians should court the "Latino vote" and champion so-called "Latino" issues, like immigration reform. Discussing the promise, contributions and the needs of particular, ethnic communities in a big, diverse nation is no longer taboo.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama should acknowledge that while economic pain in today's American is not limited to any one community, some communities are in more trouble than others. Prioritizing broad prosperity for all doesn't mean ignoring the fact that some folks are further behind.

The truth is, the black community finds itself in the worst of all possible situations - both economically and politically.

First of all, a large part of the African-American community is in economic free fall. I am not talking only about those sections of the black community that have been mired in poverty for generations now - of course, they need and deserve more focused support and attention. I am also talking about the African-American middle class that was devastated by the housing collapse, lost 80% of its wealth, and has yet to recover even a fraction of it from those difficult days four years ago.

The private sector is still statistically quite hostile to black job seekers: The national unemployment rate is 7.9%, but African-Americans suffer from 13.8% unemployment. Meanwhile, budget-slashing Republicans are working hard to attack, demonize, and defund the public sector jobs upon which much of the black professional class was built. Add one more problem: sky-high costs of college. These problems collectively constitute an economic emergency for all Americans - and a super-emergency for our black communities.

Second, African-Americans are also in the wilderness politically. One major political party - the GOP - ignores us, and the other simply takes us for granted. For any Democratic nominee for president of the United States to have a chance, he or she must generate high turnout among African-Americans -- and usually win more than 80% of our vote. In other words, we are the main pillar of the Democratic Party.

But neither party has made a priority of addressing the excessive unemployment, loss of housing, lack of opportunity, and yes, continuing racial discrimination and over-incarceration that continue to plague the African-American community.

The immigration debate teaches us that these issues don't need to divide minority communities. The leading spokespersons for African-Americans - stalwarts like Ben Jealous of the NAACP -- are fully on board with immigration reform. It is remarkable that a devastated community is still willing to stand in solidarity with another minority population. With that kind of mutual care and cooperation, we can make sure every American is lifted by a rising tide.