While the State of the Union is a unique opportunity for President Obama to talk directly with all Americans, this year's speech has special significance for African Americans.
The 2014 speech emphasizes three primary themes—opportunity, action, and optimism. Opportunity initially appears the most relevant to African Americans, as the President likely will talk about increasing the minimum wage to over $10, job training, and expanded Pre-K programs.
Both action and optimism, however, are perhaps even more important, because they prompt African Americans to proactively define both short-term and long-term policy priorities.
On their face, action and optimism mean that The White House will try to work with Congress, but if needed the President will take action using other strategies. The White House will not cynically fixate on a Congress beyond its control, but will focus instead on what the Administration can accomplish.
For example, the White House has already coordinated several executive branch agencies (eg., Labor, Education, HUD, Justice) to work together on initiatives like African-American Educational Excellence, reentry for former offenders, and economic development Promise Zones. The President also recently convened college presidents to discuss increasing success among disadvantaged students, and is convening business leaders to focus on hiring the long-term unemployed.
Action and optimism are also themes, however, that should shape African-American political debate. Unfortunately, too much conversation has centered on old rhetorical paradigms, such as "do the President's speeches focus too much on individual responsibility instead of structural racism?" These conceptual debates go unresolved and rarely yield concrete policy changes that tangibly improve the lives of African Americans.
While the Administration has had some significant accomplishments (health care, fighting hate crimes, sentencing and reentry reforms, the Black farmers' $1.2 billion settlement, an aggressive defense of the Voting Rights Act, and a gradual but steady decline of the African-American unemployment rate), more tangible policy work can be done.
Less than three years of the Obama Administration remain, and real substantive issues persist. New Department of Education rules, for example, resulted in over 14,000 HBCU students being denied Parent PLUS Loans. The "blue slip" process controlled by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has allowed GOP Southern senators to block judicial nominees who protect civil rights, and push nominees who oppose civil rights. There is an open question about whether the Affordable Care Act enrollment process will comply with federal requirements to offer voter registration.
We will not eliminate all racial disparities in the next three years, but we should take action on what we can control (and many unheralded souls already are doing so). What are the most significant discrete problems facing African Americans that require coordination of several agencies by the White House to solve? Are these problems currently being addressed by existing Administration initiatives, and can those efforts be improved or supported? What big problems can be solved quickly by a change at a single executive branch agency, and can that agency be approached directly?
Aside from short term tactics, another immediate action item is to develop longer term ideas and policy options on the future of African Americans. This is no easy process, and involves pulling together not only scholars and other experts in traditional subjects like civil rights and criminal justice, but also fast-changing areas like technology and globalization. The process will also require significant input from elected officials, journalists, business, think tanks, foundations, clergy, community leaders, and other communities of color.
Black Americans, as well as other people of color, are changing the political landscape by becoming a greater share of the electorate. One year from now, Republican and Democratic presidential primary candidates will start campaigning across the country. An early stop will be South Carolina, which is nearly 30% African American. Will African Americans take action now, and be ready to engage each possible future president with clear policy options on the future of Black Americans?