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Despite Setbacks, Obama's Presidency Impacted African-American Life


President Obama speaks tomorrow night at an awards dinner sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. It is his seventh and final time giving the keynote. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what having the country's first black president has meant for African-Americans.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Jordan Weaver was just a kid when Barack Obama was elected eight years ago, but she'll never forget that November night.

JORDAN WEAVER: My biggest memory is us in my living room, and my mom was crying. Like, she was so happy that a president could be African-American and people accepted him. Like, you could just see that everyone was so excited.


BARACK OBAMA: At this defining moment, change has come to America.

HORSLEY: Today, Weaver's a college student at Temple University. And she was eager to see Obama, now nearing the end of his term, when he spoke in Philadelphia earlier this week.

WEAVER: I don't think people give him enough credit, but I love him.

HORSLEY: Weaver joined several thousand people at an outdoor rally near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jamie Littles brought her young son so he could see the president for himself.

JAMIE LITTLES: Just so he can get a better understanding of who Obama is and what he means in history for black Americans.

HORSLEY: For Chuck Coleman, it means a lot.

CHUCK COLEMAN: For me, as an African-American male, it's just a proud moment to see him serve and to raise our country to the level that he was able to perform.

HORSLEY: Coleman paused, though, when asked how his own life has changed during the nearly eight years Obama's been in office.

COLEMAN: To be perfectly honest with you, I don't think any one person can change all of the conditions in this country.

HORSLEY: Asked about tangible ways their lives have changed under Obama, a number of people at the rally cited the Affordable Care Act.

JEFF HASKINS: Obamacare is here. I'm a recipient of that.

BERTHA JOHNSON: I was able to get health insurance, which makes a big impact.

NICKY ROBERTSON: I didn't have insurance, and now I have insurance. So now I'm thankful. Thank Barack.

HORSLEY: As Jeff Haskins, Bertha Johnson and Nicky Robertson illustrate, Obamacare has pushed the rate of health insurance to record highs, and African-Americans have seen some of the biggest gains. High school and college graduation rates for blacks have also improved on Obama's watch.

But other measures are less encouraging. Black unemployment has come down since the worst of the recession, but it still tops 8 percent, more than three points above the national average. Homeownership rates for African-Americans have taken a big hit. And while the average black family's income rose more than 4 percent last year, the income gap between African-American and white families is as wide today as it was four decades ago.

MARC MORIAL: Black America is like a caboose on a train. When the train speeds up, the caboose speeds up, but it's still the caboose.

HORSLEY: Marc Morial heads the National Urban League, which issues an annual report card called The State of Black America. He says it's clear Obama's presidency has not been a panacea. Donald Trump has tried to exploit lingering problems by urging African-Americans to switch their allegiance to the Republican Party.


DONALD TRUMP: You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

HORSLEY: For the record, the youth unemployment rate among African-Americans is just over 26 percent, less than half the figure Trump cites. And Obama's approval rating among blacks is 90 percent. Morial says he would have liked to see more targeted help for African-Americans, and he suggests a jobs bill obama pushed in 2011 would have helped. But as often happened, Obama faced stiff resistance from congressional Republicans and a sizable public backlash.

MORIAL: It's also got to be said that Barack Obama's election spurred a negative reaction - the rise of the hard right, the Tea Party, the birther movement, to some extent, the rise of Donald Trump.

HORSLEY: Obama's tried to avoid any appearance of favoring African-Americans. In his second term, though, Obama has sometimes served as a kind of ambassador, offering whites and others a window into how African-Americans perceive events like the 2013 acquittal of a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin.


OBAMA: There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store. That includes me.

HORSLEY: The effort to help young black men with the My Brother's Keeper initiative and the push to overhaul the criminal justice system will likely remain priorities for Obama long after he leaves the White House. After nearly eight years, a black president is no longer a novelty, so it's easy to lose sight of just how barrier-breaking Obama's election was.

At a comic roast for the president earlier this year, comedian Larry Wilmore offered a serious reminder.


LARRY WILMORE: When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn't accept a black quarterback. Now, think about that. A black man was thought, by his mere color, not good enough to lead a football team. And now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.


HORSLEY: Obama had a chance to reflect on that this week when he took his family on a private tour of Washington's newest museum. It's devoted to African-American history and culture, in which all of the Obamas now have a prominent place. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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