President Barack Obama pressed on Saturday night for a greater focus on helping black women who are more likely to be stuck in minimum wage jobs, have higher rates of illness and face higher rates of incarceration than other women.
His speech delivered to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual gala was short on hard policy prescriptions aimed directly at black women. Rather Obama said that many of the proposals that his administration has championed, such as raising the minimum wage and criminal justice reform, would help close the gap between black women and their peers.
The president briefly acknowledged Hillary Clinton, his former Secretary of State who was in the audience and is campaigning for the presidency. Obama called her “outstanding” and noted that she could relate to first lady Michelle Obama’s concerns over the pay gap that women face compared to their male counterparts.
“We are going to have to close those economic gaps,” Obama said.
Obama spent a significant portion of his remarks making the case for criminal justice reform, which has become a core part of his agenda during his remaining days in office. His push to pare back the prison population by reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders has garnered some Republican support, but still faces a tough odds in Congress.
Obama, spurred by a series of high profile cases of apparent police abuse, has spoken far more forcefully in recent months about the impact of racial bias on policing. He bristled, though, at some media depictions that suggested that he was anti-law enforcement.
“We appreciate them and we love them,” Obama said of police officers. “They deserve our respect. I just want to repeat that because somehow this never gets on television. There is no contradiction between caring about our law enforcement officers and making sure the laws are applied fairly.”
He paused and looked out at the crowd. “Hope I am making that clear,” he said. “I hope I am making that clear.”
The focus of his remarks, though, was on helping black women. Black women are one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies and consistently vote at higher rates in national elections than any other demographic group. In 2012, they turned out at a rate of 70 percent for the presidential election and were crucial to Obama’s victories in key states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
Obama described the important and too often anonymous role that black women played during the civil rights movement and praised the recent push to put a black woman’s picture on the $10 bill. But he insisted that such symbolic actions fell short of what was needed. “We’ve got to make sure they are getting some ten dollar bills,” he said, “that they are getting paid properly.”
Obama made the case for better job training and more mentorship programs to encourage women of color to pursue careers in math and science. He noted that his wife often worried that she would be labeled too assertive or “too angry” as she pursued her career. His primary focus, though, was on black women who were struggling to get by on minimum wage salaries or trying to overcome abuse.
The president noted that the incarceration rate for black women is twice that of white women and described a “sinister sexual abuse to prison pipeline” in which traumatized women went on to commit crimes.
He called for more effort to stop violence and abuse against women “in every community and on every campus.”