by Dr. Boyce Watkins
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we also get the wonderful opportunity to see a man with black skin starting a second term in the White House. The re-election of President Barack Obama is an extraordinary symbol of Obama’s genius, intelligence, focus and political savvy. The president has done a reasonable job of fighting for various liberal causes within the constraints of the presidency: Healthcare reform, women’s rights, immigration and gay rights all saw significant advances as a result of the president’s hard work.
One group that seems to be forgotten in all of this is the black community. African Americans continue to be the only political group that gives all of their votes to a politician and asks for nothing in return, effectively making us the convenient mistress of the Democratic Party. Even as President Obama chose a group of white guys to run his cabinet and continued the Supreme Court’s legacy of locking black women out for its entire 224-year history, there are still those who hold out hope that perhaps deep down, this bi-racial president who was raised in a white household somehow cares enough for black people that he might put his neck on the line for us.
So far, the evidence that President Obama loves the black community the way we love him has been disappointing. Even staunch supporters of the president have either given up on him entirely, committed themselves to settling for political scraps, supported him on faith without evidence or found themselves completely disillusioned by the world of politics. One disappointing litmus test might be the Martin Luther King holiday, set to take place on the same day as the president’s inauguration. This is the day where one man is conveniently measured against the next, like asking someone to stand on a scale to prove that they’ve actually been working out every day.
If I may, I’d like to humbly submit some questions that Dr. King might have for President Obama if he were alive today. If a man is allowed to lean on your legacy for political gain, then one might expect that he is at least partially responsible for helping to continue that legacy. I can’t put a PhD on my wall while simultaneously refusing to learn how to read, and the president cannot say that he was inspired by Dr. King’s work while disrespecting those who fight for those very same values. Here are some questions that Dr. King might ask President Obama were he alive on this day:
1) Do you have a commitment to racial equality? If so, why are you not willing to speak on the matter? I can’t recall the last time I heard the president say the words “Black man” or “Black woman” in public. It appears that he believes that his racial equality card is embedded in the color of his skin, but men like Clarence Thomas remind us that this is not the case. While the president might make politically neutered statements about Dr. King such as “Dr. King was committed to service,” we also know that without the battle against racial inequality, there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King, Jr. This was the cornerstone of his memory, and we should not allow him to be softened for public consumption.
2) Why does your administration refuse to mention poor people? With 40% of all black children in poverty and the wealth gap between blacks and whites increasing during the Obama presidency, it’s difficult to say that the president has shown a great deal of concern for the economic challenges of black Americans. From the beginning, both President Obama and his evil sidekick Valerie Jarrett made it clear that black unemployment was nowhere on the radar screen for the White House (as the president plainly said that “the rising tide will lift all boats,” which is a racialized version of Trickle Down Economics). As a result, whites have seen their unemployment rates and economic fortunes improve since the start of the recession, and black people have seen even more misery. But then again, it’s never been fashionable to care about poor black people, and even some black people believe that this lack of progress occurs because black people are lazy and don’t want to work.
3) Are you a man who seeks peace or are you part of the American war machine? Likely due to no fault of his own, President Obama must make himself an extension of the American military, which has filled its free time conquering nations that have never threatened us. We topple regimes around the world, drop bombs on young children and let thousands of soldiers die, all so corporations can get access to cheaper resources to fill their coffers. I am not one to say how much the president’s conscience weighs in these decisions to start wars around the world, but I can say that Dr. King would probably not approve.
4) If you agree that the War on Drugs was wrong, then why haven’t you pardoned hardly anyone or given retroactive sentencing? The president, to his credit, played a role in the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the Crack-t0-Powder disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. But what we must first realize is that 18-to-1 is not fair; it’s just not as horribly unfair as the prior disparity. To be sure, 1-to-1 is fair sentencing, and 18-to-1 only means that a five year sentence translates to a 90-year sentence. The fact that this has become the standard for racial equality in the criminal justice system in America is a reminder of just how sick our nation has become.
Secondly, even with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the president and his binder full of white men have done NOTHING to allow these sentences to be applied retroactively. This means that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who remain incarcerated under laws that have been banned. Even the most extreme Obama apologist can’t explain their way out of this one. The president has the power of the pardon, where he can correct many of these wrongs with the stroke of a pen. Dr. King gave his life to fight against inequality, Obama won’t even pick up a pen. Yet some want to believe that these men are similar.
5) Why did you cry for the dead children at Sandy Hook, but not for the far higher numbers of dead children in black communities? This week, Minister Louis Farrakhan called on President Obama to come and see about the families of gun violence victims in Chicago. The president said that the deaths of the children at Sandy Hook made for the worst day of his presidency. This statement is stunning in light of how many more children have died on the south side of Chicago and in other urban areas all across America. I dare say that if those Sandy Hook children had been black kids in a poor neighborhood, this would have gone from being the worst day of the Obama presidency to being a normal day at the office. No one’s child deserves to die, even if they have the severe misfortune of being inconveniently black.
One of the things that we don’t want to admit is that most of us have little interest in truly connecting to the legacy of Martin Luther King, largely because the truth behind his beliefs makes most of us uncomfortable. Dr. Cornel West has been attacked from all sides for critiquing the Obama Administration for it’s lack of interest in racial inequality, poverty, mass incarceration and violence. Ironically, before he died, Dr. King was also heavily criticized for his remarks on very similar issues. Also, notice that Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was as close to Dr. King as any public figure living today, has not been invited to the White House largely because he speaks on issues that the administration would rather ignore.
Some like to excuse Obama’s deliberate oversight of Jackson by referencing Jackson’s ill-timed remarks on Fox News five years ago. But if this is President Obama’s excuse for ignoring the needs of 40 million Americans, then that would make him as petty as someone accused of being upset because he didn’t get tickets to the inauguration. We can’t accuse Cornel West of being a petty man on one hand, but then say that Jackson’s unfortunate remarks about Obama give Barack an excuse to put his personal vendetta ahead of the interests of millions of Americans. That would be a clear and immature double standard.
In America, truth-tellers tend to be persecuted, and liars often emerge as heroes. Right now, we are living in the den of political thieves, as Dr. Martin Luther King’s hard work is being borrowed and leveraged by people who would never invite him to the White House if he were alive today. Dr. Martin Luther King made sacrifices to create opportunities for Obama, but Obama would probably not sacrifice his political opportunities to support a man like Dr. King. The two have as much in common as a soldier on the battlefield and a teenager who plays military games on Xbox. These men are very, very different.