By: April Ryan, aprildryan.com | AURN
2014 was a year that did not disappoint with White House related news.
In January, the U.S. Conference of Mayors met with President Obama to focus on rebuilding infrastructure that could translate into job creation. The U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Second Vice President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mayor of Baltimore, says, “what we want to impart to the President is how important it is to work across the aisle to get things done for our cities.” The organization is made up of Mayors from cities with populations exceeding 30,000. Prior to the meeting, the group released the Metro Economies Report. Rawlings-Blake says the report finds, “Cities are where it’s at!” The report also found 90% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product comes from cities. The Mayors went to the White House with a list of needs that included infrastructure money and a discussion on public safety and gun violence pertaining to irresponsible gun ownership.
Also in January, US Attorney General Eric Holder called on Congress to pass the Bi-Partisan Sentencing Act that would reform mandatory minimum sentences. He acknowledged in a written statement the Justice Department has taken additional reforms – under the “Smart on Crime” initiative – to ensure that individuals accused of certain low-level federal drug crimes no longer face excessive mandatory minimum sentences that are out of proportion with their alleged conduct – and serve no deterrent purpose. DOJ officials believe the reforms have the potential to help make the nation’s criminal justice system not only fairer, but also more efficient by reducing the burden on the overcrowded prison system.
January was busy as the President began his increased push for a hike in the minimum wage across the nation. He also used his Executive power to order a rise in the minimum wage for federal contract workers.
It was a year President Obama’s nominee for FHFA Director at the Department of Housing was confirmed. The President picked his nominee from the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus and nominated Mel Watt of North Carolina to fill the post after much public comment about a lack of new appointment positions being filled by African Americans.
In February, the White House said it was a “sad day for Uganda” as they criminalized homosexuality. Former United States President Bill Clinton also addressed the issue. The White House said they were reviewing their relationship with Uganda. More than two dozen Sub Saharan African Nations have declared homosexual acts illegal. Ia written statement President Obama said, the Ugandan law is more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda, it reflects poorly on the country’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its people and will undermine public health, including efforts to fight HIV/AIDS.
February, Black History month, the President named Broderick Johnson, as the head of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 by a Florida neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. The focus is to help at risk minority youth keep out of trouble and situations that could lead to prison and death. Mentorship and community involvement are some of the pillars of the initiative. Critics of the effort include those who feel there should also be a focus on at risk minority women. The White House responded with their efforts through their Women and Girls initiative headed by Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett.
It was a year that saw the Obama administration work to fix discrimination in school discipline. In March, at a School in Washington DC, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan announced a more holistic approach to the disparity in the numbers of minority kids expelled from school. The Departments of Justice and the Department of Education are working to keep kids in school and find alternative means to kicking them out when problems occur. The study found among other items that racial disparities and exclusionary discipline begins with 4 year olds. The report included findings that black students represent 42% of the 4 year olds suspended from the nations schools.
In late September, literally there was not a dry eye in the house as US Attorney General Eric Holder announced from the White House he was leaving his post afar six years on the job as the first African American to serve in the position. President Obama nominated New York U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to fill the post. Confirmation hearings are slated for 2015.
2014 was also the year President Obama saw his legacy piece, the Affordable Care Act, garner more numbers in sign ups for insurance than expected. March 2014 was the deadline for the first open enrollment session. The President was more than pleased with the fix to the problems of the website, even offering White House beer to those who helped correct the broken site that helped generate well over seven million enrollees through Obamacare.
Months later President Obama hosted the first of its kind event in the United States, the U.S. Africa Summit. President Obama brought African leaders from the continent to focus on business opportunities between the United States and African Countries. The Africa Summit took place in August at a time when the calls to “bring back our girls” were still being made. The 200 plus Nigerian girls were still missing and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa began gaining global media attention.
On the missing Nigerian Girls, Nigerian leaders were in the United States for the Summit. During various sessions with American leaders, the Nigerian officials conveyed they would break Boko Haram in three months and would have the girls back. That did not happen and it was disclosed by Nigeria that France, Israel and the United States were helping Nigeria locate and possibly release the girls. Obama Administration officials did admit corruption within the Nigerian government is at least part of the reason the girls have not been found.
With the convergence of African leaders and their delegations for the Africa Summit in August there were some vocal concerns of fear of Ebola, But there were no reported cases of Ebola in the United States surrounding the Summit. But in September, Thomas Duncan a man traveling from West Africa boarded a plane bound for Dallas, Texas to visit his finance. In five days of his arrival to the United States, the man fell ill and was later diagnosed with the deadly disease. It was to be the first Ebola case diagnosed in the United States. Duncan succumbed to the disease and two nurses working with him contracted the disease. They lived. President Obama worked to keep the American public from panicking about the disease. The President worked to reassure the country by being photographed in the Oval Office with one of the nurses released from the NIH after she was cured of the disease. The President also, pushed back on calls to close the U.S. boarders to flights from West Africa particularly from the Ebola effected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. National Security experts believed if the President had blocked the boarders it would have destabilized countries like Liberia.
The summer of 2014 began renewed racial discussions and tensions this time over police involved deaths of black males in several locations in this country. The Summer of 2014 revealed a lot of hurt within a community that dealt with several high profile police involved deaths of black males. The year ended with the country understanding we must support law enforcement but also call for a marked change in how the community and law enforcement interact during tense exchanges. There was the police involved death of Michael Brown in Ferguson that resulted in riots where local police used military equipment to fight back crowds and demonstrators that were mostly black. The Obama Justice Department is currently studying the use of that equipment by local police. The White House has commented in the past about that equipment being a help to local policing agencies in certain circumstances. But administration officials are trying to figure out why things went terribly wrong in Ferguson, Missouri. The equipment and tear gas was initially said to have been used there to calm crowds after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Weeks later, more clashes came after the Grand Jury decision not to charge the police officer who killed Brown for the shooting death. In New York, there was an illegal and fatal choke hold used on New Yorker Eric Garner. Garner died after complaining “I can’t breath.” The officer was not charged in the death that was deemed a homicide. Another police involved death was in Cleveland, Ohio with a 12 year old boy. The Justice Department is investigating all three police involved deaths and the investigation is still ongoing into the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
By the very end of the year the Brookings Institute reported in 2044, the United States will be a majority minority nation with Whites comprising 49.7% of the population compared with 25 percent for Hispanics, 12.7 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians and 3.7 for percent multiracial persons. Those facts are expected to occur with the decline of the nations white population and the growth of new minorities in the Asian and Hispanic and multi-cultural populations.
Race played a very big part in White House activities in 2014. At President Obama’s year press conference, he called on 8 women for questions. The President spoke of race relations in this nation. A question I asked….”Six years ago this month, I asked you what was the state of black America in the Oval Office, and you said it was the “the best of times and the worst of times.” You said it was the best of times in the sense that there was — has never been more opportunity for African Americans to receive a good education, and the worst of times for unemployment and the lack of opportunity. We’re ending 2014. What is the state of black America as we talk about those issues as well as racial issues in this country?”
Here is the transcript of my question with President Obama’s response.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Last question, I guess. (Laughter.) Six years ago this month, I asked you what was the state of black America in the Oval Office, and you said it was the “the best of times and the worst of times.” You said it was the best of times in the sense that there was — has never been more opportunity for African Americans to receive a good education, and the worst of times for unemployment and the lack of opportunity. We’re ending 2014. What is the state of black America as we talk about those issues as well as racial issues in this country?
THE PRESIDENT: Like the rest of America, black America in the aggregate is better off now than it was when I came into office. The jobs that have been created, the people who’ve gotten health insurance, the housing equity that’s been recovered, the 401 pensions that have been recovered — a lot of those folks are African American. They’re better off than they were.
The gap between income and wealth of white and black America persists. And we’ve got more work to do on that front. I’ve been consistent in saying that this is a legacy of a troubled racial past of Jim Crow and slavery. That’s not an excuse for black folks. And I think the overwhelming majority of black people understand it’s not an excuse. They’re working hard. They’re out there hustling and trying to get an education, trying to send their kids to college. But they’re starting behind, oftentimes, in the race.
And what’s true for all Americans is we should be willing to provide people a hand up — not a handout, but help folks get that good early childhood education, help them graduate from high school, help them afford college. If they do, they’re going to be able to succeed, and that’s going to be good for all of us.
And we’ve seen some progress. The education reforms that we’ve initiated are showing measurable results. We have the highest high school graduation that we’ve seen in a very long time. We are seeing record numbers of young people attending college. In many states that have initiated reforms, you’re seeing progress in math scores and reading scores for African American and Latino students as well as the broader population. But we’ve still got more work to go.
Now, obviously, how we’re thinking about race relations right now has been colored by Ferguson, the Garner case in New York, a growing awareness in the broader population of what I think many communities of color have understood for some time, and that is that there are specific instances at least where law enforcement doesn’t feel as if it’s being applied in a colorblind fashion.
The task force that I formed is supposed to report back to me in 90 days — not with a bunch of abstract musings about race relations, but some really concrete, practical things that police departments and law enforcement agencies can begin implementing right now to rebuild trust between communities of color and the police department.
And my intention is to, as soon as I get those recommendations, to start implementing them. Some of them we’ll be able to do through executive action. Some of them will require congressional action. Some of them will require action on the part of states and local jurisdictions.
But I actually think it’s been a healthy conversation that we’ve had. These are not new phenomenon. The fact that they’re now surfacing, in part because people are able to film what have just been, in the past, stories passed on around a kitchen table, allows people to make their own assessments and evaluations. And you’re not going to solve a problem if it’s not being talked about.
In the meantime, we’ve been moving forward on criminal justice reform issues more broadly. One of the things I didn’t talk about in my opening statement is the fact that last year was the first time in 40 years where we had the federal prison population go down and the crime rate go down at the same time, which indicates the degree to which it’s possible for us to think smarter about who we’re incarcerating, how long we’re incarcerating, how are we dealing with nonviolent offenders, how are we dealing with drug offenses, diversion programs, drug courts. We can do a better job of — and save money in the process by initiating some of these reforms. And I’ve been really pleased to see that we’ve had Republicans and Democrats in Congress who are interested in these issues as well.
The one thing I will say — and this is going to be the last thing I say — is that one of the great things about this job is you get to know the American people. I mean, you meet folks from every walk of life and every region of the country, and every race and every faith. And what I don’t think is always captured in our political debates is the vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing, and people are basically good and have good intentions. Sometimes our institutions and our systems don’t work as well as they should. Sometimes you’ve got a police department that has gotten into bad habits over a period of time and hasn’t maybe surfaced some hidden biases that we all carry around. But if you offer practical solutions, I think people want to fix these problems. It’s not — this isn’t a situation where people feel good seeing somebody choked and dying. I think that troubles everybody. So there’s an opportunity of all of us to come together and to take a practical approach to these problems.
And I guess that’s my general theme for the end of the year — which is we’ve gone through difficult times. It is your job, press corps, to report on all the mistakes that are made and all the bad things that happen and the crises that look like they’re popping. And I understand that. But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis; you get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before — we fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border, and it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed.
And part of what I hope as we reflect on the New Year this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can’t be stopped.
And now I’m going to go on vacation. Mele Kalikimaka, everybody. (Laughter.) Mahalo. Thank you, everybody.