Politics & Policy

Reagan, Obama, and The Butler

Which president did more to help black Americans?

Buried in a New York Times story about the economy was this arresting statistic: Median family income for black Americans has declined a whopping 10.9 percent during the Obama administration. It has declined for other groups as well — 3.6 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 4.5 percent for Hispanics — but the figure for blacks is huge. This decline does not include losses suffered during the financial crisis and the recession that followed, but instead measures declines since June 2009, when the recession officially ended.

That’s not the only bad news for African Americans. The poverty rate for blacks was 25.8 percent in 2011. The black labor-force-participation rate, which rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has declined for the past decade and quite sharply under Obama to 61.4 percent. The black unemployment rate, according to Pew Research, stands at 13.4 percent. Among black, male high-school dropouts, PBS’s Paul Solman reports, the unemployment rate is a staggering 95 percent.

#ad#Does any of this affect the standing of the nation’s first black president with black Americans? Not a whit, apparently. This is not to suggest that any president should gear his policies to one or another ethnic group. The president serves the nation as a whole, or should. But if unemployment, poverty, and the black/white income gap had expanded under a different president to the degree it has under Obama (the income gap is now larger than it was under George W. Bush), it wouldn’t go unreported and the president would not escape responsibility.

The advent of an African-American president surely brings psychic dividends to black Americans (and the rest of us, to a degree) but those intangibles may be pretty much all they get from his presidency. In terms of material prosperity, his leadership has delivered nothing but decline. He plays the psychological card very skillfully — showboating his identification with Trayvon Martin and sticking up for Henry Louis Gates Jr. — but more and more his gestures in this regard seem like substitutes for results.

Black poverty is up, employment is down, and wealth is down. The dissolution of the black family continues unabated, with 72.3 percent of black children born to unmarried mothers. Black males constitute just 6 percent of the population yet comprise more than 40 percent of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons and jails. One third of black men aged 20–29 are in the purview of the criminal-justice system (incarcerated or on probation or parole).

The press resolutely ignores these figures, while the propaganda arm of the Democratic party in Hollywood serves up distorted history to distract and pacify the public. The latest entry appears to be The Butler, which misrepresents President Reagan (as I gather from those who’ve seen it) as, at best, insensitive to blacks, and at worst as racist. Eugene Allen, the actual White House butler on whom the film is supposedly based, kept signed photos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in his living room (pictures of the other presidents he had served hung in the basement).

According to a 2008 Washington Post profile, Allen served eight presidents for 34 years until his retirement. He did not, as the movie portrays, resign to protest Reagan’s policies on civil rights or South Africa. His wife happily reminisced to the Post about the time the couple were invited by the Reagans to attend a state dinner in honor of the West German chancellor. “Drank champagne that night,” Mrs. Allen recalled with pleasure. The film apparently depicts the invitation as tokenism. The filmmakers also insert a horrific childhood “memory” for Allen — his mother being raped and his father shot by a white landlord. Didn’t happen.

Would it interest black moviegoers to know that under Ronald Reagan’s policies median African-American household incomes increased by 84 percent (compared with 68 percent for whites)? The poverty rate dropped during the 1980s from 14 percent down to 11.6 percent. The black-unemployment rate dropped by 9 percentage points. The number of black-owned businesses increased by 38 percent and receipts more than doubled.

Obama’s economic record is dismal because he is inflexibly attached to the wrong ideas. Hollywood is of course free to worship at his tattered shrine. But to smear Reagan — a man who deeply loathed bigotry in any form and actually improved the lives of all Americans including blacks — in an attempt to prop up the drooping Obama standard is contemptible.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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