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African-Americans reflect on eight years with a black president

Fabian Williams, age 41, is a full-time artist living in Atlanta, Ga. One of his murals in downtown Atlanta is of Martin Luther King, titled MLK Wake Up.
Fabian Williams, age 41, is a full-time artist living in Atlanta, Ga. One of his murals in downtown Atlanta is of Martin Luther King, titled MLK Wake Up. Los Angeles Times/TNS

Eight years ago, Andrew Jackson II saw himself on the cusp of possibility in a world of firsts.

He boarded a bus that January with dozens of family members and friends, headed to the National Mall to watch the nation’s first black president — the first person he had ever voted for — make history.

As he watched the jumbo screens show Barack Obama sworn in on that sub-freezing day, his body was swept with warmth.

“I can take a chance to breathe,” he remembers thinking. “Obama will put us on the right course.”

He was 27 and living on his own after graduating from Louisiana State University. By day, he worked at a flooring warehouse, but his spare time was spent auditioning for musicals in Houston’s burgeoning arts scene. He saw a future breaking his own barriers as a singer in Atlanta or an actor in Hollywood.

Today, Jackson is back living in a four-room trailer next to his parents’ house in rural Louisiana, where he works three jobs and makes $22,000 a year. He has a 17-month-old son with an ex, and owes more than $20,000 in school loans. He’s stopped acting, though he still spends weekends singing at sports bars and lounges in Baton Rouge.

“We thought our dreams would be more visible under Obama,” he said recently from his home, which sits off a gravel road across from a barren sugar cane field. “They’re not.”

As Obama leaves office, his approval ratings remain among the highest of exiting presidents. They’re even better among African-Americans.

But polls have shown black people to be more satisfied with Obama the man and less with their progress under Obama the president.

“Things have improved from the dark days of the recession,” said Marc Morial, chief executive of the National Urban League, which this month released a largely positive scorecard on the president’s record on jobs, education, civil rights and health for black America. “But the recovery for African-Americans has not been as fast or as deep as it’s been for whites.”

Black employment grew in 2015, hitting its highest numbers since before the recession. Poverty is decreasing; life expectancy is going up. Gaps between blacks and other racial groups in education are gradually closing. But unemployment among African-Americans is still nearly twice that of whites, and blacks continue to make up a disproportionate number of prisoners. More than a quarter of the country’s 37 million African-Americans still live in poverty.

I just can’t give him a good grade in terms of civil rights for black people. We didn’t get anything, really.

Andrew Jackson II, Louisiana resident

In interviews across the country at the twilight of Obama’s presidency, many African-Americans credited the “hope and change” president with reforming unfair sentencing procedures, bringing health insurance to millions and holding violent police departments accountable. But when there was so much to do, many wondered, was that enough?

“I’m tired of hearing about the dream,” said Fabian Williams, a 41-year-old artist from Atlanta. “I’m over poetic sentiment. It sounds good, but the country has been stuck in the same position for 40 years.”

In Jeanerette, a primarily African-American town of 5,533 two hours west of New Orleans, the Obama years haven’t changed much.

The Fruit of the Loom distribution center shut down in 2010, taking nearly 200 jobs with it. The vast sugar cane fields thrive, but they’re largely owned by outside companies and tilled by migrant workers, often Mexicans. A desolate downtown strip with shuttered storefronts recently celebrated the opening of a Subway sandwich shop.

Young people have flocked away, and the middle school closed a few years ago — Jackson’s parents attend church in the abandoned school building now.

Jackson spends his days at a desk job at a nonprofit where he helps secure community grants. At night, he manages a bingo hall.

“There’s still hope,” he says. But he’s lowered his ambitions.

“I used to want to be rich. I wanted to be Denzel Washington or Will Smith.” Now, he says, “I want to be healthy and well enough to take care of my family.”

How is it, he wonders, that his sights got set so much lower? “I’m an educated young man from a very accredited university in the state of Louisiana. Like, I can’t find a decent job? This is crazy.”

Next generation

Nearly 1,800 miles away in Compton, Calif., Sharoni Little has considered Obama a father figure to the two boys she’s raised on her own in a city plagued by gang violence and failing schools.

“It’s going to be tough. Really, really tough,” Little, 51, said as she sat in the living room of her family’s modest single-level house in a neighborhood of neatly tended lawns not far from the roar of the 91 Freeway.

Obama mementos are scattered everywhere. A knit blanket depicting the first couple is draped across the sofa, and a sticker fixed on a door quotes Michelle Obama’s famous line, “When they go low, we go high.” A book on U.S. presidents sits on an end table, featuring George Washington and Obama on the cover.

Little, a business professor at the University of Southern California, campaigned for Obama in 2008, going door to door with her two sons. Jared and Jaren were 10 at the time, the same age as Obama’s older daughter.

“The boys saw, every day, a man who looked like them, a man who understood them, who understood what it’s like to be a black man in this country,” she said. “He has made it clear that they have every right to sit at any table.”

Unemployment among African-Americans is still nearly twice that of whites, and blacks continue to make up a disproportionate number of prisoners

After Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida almost five years ago, Little was moved to tears as Obama spoke on TV about how, if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

She had given her kids “the talk” about how, as black boys, some people will see them as threats — and if they are police officers, they will have guns. She felt more urgency as protests over the deaths of black men after violent police encounters erupted in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and New York.

“We now had someone speaking out against the injustice because we had someone who had been a subject of it,” Little said.

Hope meets reality

Little lauded Obama’s legacy on education, health care and criminal justice reform, and she bristles when she hears African-Americans say Obama did not do enough to improve black lives.

She credits an effort the president spearheaded to empower young black and Latino men, My Brother’s Keeper, with helping her raise her sons.

The mentoring program has paired the boys over the last three years with black male role models, including local politicians and professionals. One helped Jared earn his private pilot’s license, and he has been accepted at the Florida Institute of Technology, where he’ll study aerospace engineering. Jaren has picked up photography, snapping pictures of high-end sports cars at trade shows.

When she starts to feel it’s too hard to raise two sons on her own, Little remembers that Obama’s mother also did it alone. “The president has not only shown it’s OK to come from single-parent homes, but that … it’s not a barrier,” she said.

In Atlanta, Williams, the artist, remembers driving more than 600 miles to Washington for Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

“It was sort of ‘Cinderella’ for black people,” he said. All around him, strangers hugged and passed plates of pizza and chicken wings. “Just like at church, but in politics. I’d never seen anything like it. It was hopeful, you know? I thought we’d transcended race.”

He was 33, and now sees his younger self as naive. Now, he said, he has “both feet in reality.” He understands better the challenges Obama faced that kept him from getting more done.

He remembers the time a white congressman shouted, “You lie!” during a presidential address. The time a Fox News anchor saw fit to ask whether a jubilant fist bump exchanged by the first couple was a “terrorist fist jab.” He wonders why people are still asking where Obama was born.

“I’m disappointed in humans,” Williams said, sitting in his cluttered basement studio. “You know how difficult it is given who he is. … You can’t deduct race from anything here. We’re not post-racial.”

I grew up with my family working on a sugar cane plantation before the Civil Rights Act. So to see him up there, oh my, it was something.

Brenda Jackson, who organized her family’s trip to Obama’s inauguration

Williams paints bright, cosmic murals that belie his own dark frustrations. Some portray politicians as puppets controlled by big money. One depicts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. glowing as he runs barefoot through a dreamlike constellation of stars, pointing one forefinger to the viewer and another to the words “WAKE UP.”

From the beginning, he said, he saw Obama as someone he could model himself after.

“I have four different kids with three mothers. … I looked at this president, and there was no drama, no mistresses. Just beautiful kids and a steady wife.”

The president gave him the confidence to quit his lucrative career as a graphic designer to be a full-time artist: He went from earning $130,000 a year to, one year, as little as $22,000.

While he’s proud of his decision and wouldn’t change it, he can’t afford health insurance and isn’t sure he’ll ever buy a house.

‘Too passive’

As for what the president was able to accomplish, Williams credits him with halting the financial crisis and projecting American credibility to the rest of the world. But when it came to addressing police shootings of blacks at home, he said, America’s first black president seemed aloof.

“He was too eloquent, too cool, too passive,” Williams said. “I just can’t give him a good grade in terms of civil rights for black people. We didn’t get anything, really.”

For an older generation of African-Americans, back in Louisiana, it has been easier to count accomplishments than regret missed opportunities — there have always been plenty of those.

“I never imagined I’d see a black president in my lifetime,” said Brenda Jackson, Andrew’s 65-year-old mother, who in 2008 had organized the family’s trip to the inauguration even while Hillary Clinton and Obama were still competing in the Democratic primaries.

“I grew up with my family working on a sugar cane plantation before the Civil Rights Act. So to see him up there, oh my, it was something,” she said.

She followed his every move on TV when he was first elected, praying he wouldn’t be assassinated. As she watched a CNN special last month on Obama’s legacy, she broke down in tears when she thought about “all the hate” that had been directed his way.

Jackson has had her doubts. A Christian who is more conservative than her son when it comes to religion, she didn’t like it when he supported same-sex marriage. Her son says many of his friends have been unable to leave “sugar country” or find good jobs over the last eight years. Some are in jail, he said. “Some of them are dead.”

Still, Brenda Jackson credits the president for doing what he could do.

“He was able to accomplish all that he could accomplish,” she said. “He was a man of grace.”

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