The Obama You Don't Know | The Washington Examiner

Chapter VI

Chapter VI: The poor people Obama left behind

September 19, 2012 | 12:00 am

Photo - A man moves furniture at the Altgeld Gardens housing project Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, on Chicago's South Side.  where Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., used to work as a community organizer. (AP Photo)
A man moves furniture at the Altgeld Gardens housing project Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, on Chicago's South Side. where Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., used to work as a community organizer. (AP Photo)

Four years after Barack Obama's historic election as president, little seems to have changed for the African-American communities on Chicago's South Side.

The lack of change -- or the sense that these neighborhoods are getting worse -- is eroding the president's standing among African-Americans in his hometown.

In 2011, Chicago suffered the third-highest black jobless rate among the nation's major metropolitan areas, at 19 percent, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

Chicago still lacks enough affordable housing. Not only did the city demolish 25,000 public housing units in the previous decade, it also experienced more than 80,000 foreclosures, mainly in low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago "black nationalist" Eddie Read contends Obama has never fought for the black community. "I would not honestly tag Obama as a fighter for black people, black agenda or black issues," Read told The Washington Examiner.

After Obama's election, Read said, "I hoped that it would change."

But four years later, as he looks around Chicago's neighborhoods, he said things haven't improved under Obama.

"I don't see where the quality of life or the quality has changed," he said, "except that it's worse."

Dr. Conrad Worrill is an African-American educator, activist and former radio talk show host on Chicago's African-American-oriented station WVON. He told the Examiner that Obama was an inspirational speaker who moved people. But in the end, he became just another Chicago politician.

"His rise in politics, his trajectory in politics has led him to make adjustments in his political decision-making. And that's the case with many politicians. So he's no different from many others in that regard. He's a politician," Worrill said.

Cheryl Johnson and her mother, Hazel, lived in the economically deprived Altgeld Gardens housing project when young Obama was a community organizer there. Her late mother also was an organizer at the housing complex and often welcomed Obama into her kitchen.

"He's everybody's president," Cheryl Johnson told the Examiner, saying she is proud she knows him. But has he made a difference? "We, as poor people, don't feel it and don't see it," she said. Read believes Obama's problem is that he does not understand the unique needs of Chicago blacks.

"Obama came through Chicago through Saul Alinsky organizing," he said. "The Alinsky piece seemed to have had an agenda about what it thought was in the best interest of black folks, from the white liberal perspective."

Obama instead allied himself with Chicago's MacArthur Foundation, local housing nonprofits and real estate developers. Valerie Jarrett and Allison Davis, Martin Nesbitt and Tony Rezko -- all Obama friends -- were at the epicenter of that powerful coalition.

Obama's low-income-housing campaign still resonates among Chicago's poor today. Deborah Taylor, a public housing tenant in the Kenwood section of Chicago, also told the Examiner things are as bad as ever for poor tenants.

"The residents at the end of the day still suffer here," she said. "A lot of times a lot of people start out idealistically thinking they are helping," Taylor said.

"I don't think any of them are in favor of the tenants," she said. "Everybody's in it for the money. It's all about profit now. So the residents lose, lose, lose."

D'Anna Carter, a neighborhood activist in Chicago's Woodlawn section, singled out the Habitat Co., which was run by Jarrett, now Obama's closest White House adviser.

"They were never interested in poor people," she told the Examiner. "They would sell poor people a bill of goods," she said bitterly in an interview.

Wardell Lavender has been a Woodlawn resident since 1951. His was the first black family to move into the neighborhood. He also blames Habitat.

"Habitat was bad landlords at the time. They didn't care too much about the blacks," he told the Examiner.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the enticement to the poor to buy condos they could not afford caused widespread losses in Chicago.

Foreclosures fell hard on Chicago's poor residents. The Urban Institute reported in May 2009 that most were displaced or homeless, credit ratings were damaged and violence increased as empty units remained vacant.

Worrill said he still supports Obama but adds that the lack of progress in Chicago's black community is palpable.

"He has been supported, but the position he's in now, he's in a heck of a predicament."

Next: Chapter VII: The myth of Obama as state Senate reformer

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