by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Some have said that the Republican Party has been the primary obstructionist that keeps President Barack Obama from dealing with African American issues. Even those who acknowledge that the president hasn’t said a word about black suffering are quick to find whatever excuse they can for inaction on the part of the White House. Rather than earning the black vote by presenting a healthy track record of effort on behalf of the black community, black people are simply being told to “keep the faith” (note the religious reference) and to “have Barack’s back,” (note the hood slang reference). It’s as if we’re being told to “stop snitching” on the White House, while Obama Administration officials sit back and laugh at how stupid we are for not asking for anything in return for unprecedented political loyalty.
We get one speech after another with Obama Administration officials reminding us of how many civil rights leaders died to give us the right to vote, and why they all wanted us to take the best political option they choose to give us. But what they don’t tell us is that when you vote for a politician and ask him for nothing, you are worse off than if you’d abstained and held your vote for ransom. A woman choosing between a man who beats her and a man who neglects her can always say “I’m not dating either one of you fools until you learn to act right.” That woman will ALWAYS get more respect than the desperate woman with low self-esteem who takes whatever she can get.
Unfortunately, style and symbolism don’t pay the bills: Black Americans have seen their economic condition worsen, while whites have watched their conditions improve. When the recession is over, black unemployment will probably not even get down to the levels that whites are complaining about right now. Almost nothing has been done to alleviate the mass incarceration epidemic and the President has hardly addressed all of the dead black teenagers in the killing fields of his home city of Chicago. If those were white gay kids in the suburbs, billions of dollars would have already been allocated to help resolve the problem.
A recent New York Times article seems to imply that the bottleneck on getting to the heart of African American issues is not the Republican Party or the president himself. Instead, some say that Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett has done all she can to keep the president from dealing with African Americans directly, and instead has been working through Al Sharpton, an unwavering Obama surrogate, who admitted in a 60 Minutes interview that he would never criticize the president, even if he isn’t doing his job effectively. Sharpton’s political motto may as well be, “Yes, things are horrible for black people, and the Democrats aren’t going to do a damn thing about it, but I really need you to keep voting for my boss.”
Jarrett has been called an elitist by some, and doesn’t have a strong track record on fighting for poor blacks. For example, many noted that the president and Valerie came home for the expensive wedding of Valerie’s Harvard-educated daughter and said nothing about the black boys being killed right down the street on the South Side of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, however, the president hopped on a jet to console the victims of the Batman shooting in Colorado…..after all, their lives are more important.
Part of the massive disagreement I had with Rev. Sharpton (we no longer speak and I don’t expect that to change any time soon) had to do with Valerie, who seems more hell-bent on killing a critique than actually addressing it with constructive effort. My goal was to get to the bottom of the reason that the president was not meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, which is apparently a question that black people are not allowed to ask. Before May 2011, President Obama had only met with the CBC two times in two years, which is inexcusable, especially during the worst black economic crisis in 30 years. But then again, why should he do anything for black people? They’ve got over 90% of the black vote, and many African Americans will support the Obama Administration on faith and not much else.
The “inconvenient truth” for both Jarrett and Obama is that they are getting unprecedented support from black Americans and they cannot treat this support as a political welfare check that doesn’t have to be repaid. It is nothing less than their complete obligation to return this support with effort of their own. If they took half the energy they spend begging us to vote in November and actually applied this to solving problems, our community would be much better off (notice how they love to fight for voting rights to get black people to the polls, but seem to forget that we exist after they’ve been elected).
Those who feel that President Obama is being held to a higher standard than President Bush are absolutely correct: Bush didn’t get 90% of our vote, so he didn’t owe us much of anything. Barack Obama DOES owe us something, the same way he owed (and paid) a debt to his gay and Hispanic constituents, who threatened to withdraw their support if the administration didn’t get in line with their agenda (please take notes: Politicians only respond to credible threats, not political groupies).
When advocating for African American issues defines a person to be inherently anti-Obama, we’ve got a serious problem in which our observations may not be consistent with reality. We can no longer live in a world where anyone who asks President Obama to do something is defined to be an enemy of the administration, and Valerie Jarrett knows this. Any effort by Valerie Jarrett, Al Sharpton or anyone else to suppress black voices who request action from the White House is as unAmerican as the oppressive regimes that they seek to dismantle around the world. We too have the right to speak freely about the issues that matter to our community and no one has a right to sleep on the job.
An excerpt of the New York Times article (below) features a back-and-forth between Jarrett and Prof. Cornel West. Dr. West seems to feel that Valerie was the one who started the whole nonsense of invalidating the entire poverty critique by reducing Cornel to a bitter man who was mad that he didn’t get inauguration tickets. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t change one fundamental fact: Black poverty and unemployment are worse than they have been in decades, in large part because Valerie and Barack were busy fighting for gay rights instead of embracing any form of targeted economic policy. Bush did create the economic mess we’re in, but the Obama Administration seemed to only clean up the mess in white neighborhoods.
It’s hard to show up and ask for support for work you didn’t do. Anyone who disagrees is encouraged to tell me where I am wrong.
Here’s a snippet from the New York Times:
Ms. Jarrett was similarly “livid,” one former White House official said, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus who accused the president of paying insufficient attention to the particular economic woes of blacks. When the writer and academic Cornel West joined in, calling Mr. Obama the “black mascot of Wall Street,” Ms. Jarrett’s response was “ruthless,” Dr. West said.
He recalled a phone call in which she dismissed his criticism as sour grapes for not receiving a ticket to the inauguration, and said he later heard from friends that she was putting out the word that “one, I was crazy, and two, I was un-American.”
“It was a matter of letting me know that I was, in her view, way out of line and that I needed to get in line,” he said in an interview. “I conveyed to her: ‘I’m not that kind of Negro. I’m a Jesus-loving black man who tells the truth, in the White House, in the crack house or in any other house.’ She got real quiet. It was clear that she was not used to being spoken to that way.”
Those who feel compelled to attack Cornel West, a scholar who has been one of the most consistent and relentless fighters for the black community over the last 25 years, might want to think about what they are doing. By going after West for asking Obama to address the statistically-documented issues of extreme (and worsening) poverty and mass incarceration, you are trading in an authentic leader who loves you for a more popular and powerful leader who has ignored you. This is nothing less than the slave mentality, which leans on validation from white Americans as symbolic evidence of our own self-worth. Black people don’t just love Barack Obama for being a great man….they love him because white people have crowned him to be our king.
If President Obama loves us, he has an obligation to show us, not to the exclusion of everything else on his plate, but to the point where the White House remembers that black people are Americans too. Those who want Barack to succeed as an authentic African American hero are encouraged to push him to higher standards, no less than the way we should push our sons to overcome racism and still do their best. Barack Obama is not just the president of black America, but he must be reminded that black people are part of America too. In other words, it’s time to stop making excuses.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To check out Dr. Watkins in the Janks Morton Film, Hoodwinked, please visit this link.