Between the Lines
Black America calling for “A Black Agenda”: Mr. President, just answer the phone
There has been much ado about the very public feud television commentator Tavis Smiley is having with civil rights activist Al Sharpton over Tavis’ criticism of Black leadership reportedly saying that President Barack Obama doesn’t need a “Black agenda” after recently visiting the White House. It’s caused a firestorm of controversy and a revival of the annual State of the Black Union conference that Smiley had discontinued. But it’s on again under a different moniker but still the nationally televised day-long conference format, this time called, “We Count: The Black Agenda is the American Agenda.” After President Obama finally met with Black leadership (in the collective), the interest was, “What was talked about?” Now that Barack finally picked up the phone. Many wondered why it took so long for the President to meet with Black leaders, 13 months after taking the oath of office. Black leaders gave him a pass on it, stating that the President has been busy, and that he’s not just President of Black America, he’s President of all America. Well, that set Tavis off. Now we should examine why Black leaders would say that and why it should be the issue Tavis Smiley says it is. Black America does want to know what the agenda is.
Of course, we know he’s President of all the people. We’ve got that, but is the real significance of laying claim to being the first African American president a core constituency that cannot ask for anything? Therein lays the source of Tavis’ position and the pushback that he’s getting. Let me say, first of all, that Tavis is a friend and we’ve always disagreed on some aspect of the Obama phenomenon. That didn’t stop either of us from supporting him or being friends. We just agree to disagree. However, Tavis has developed a reputation of being a hardened Obama critic. As architect of “the Covenant with Black America,” Tavis’ whole mantra is that we all must hold each other accountable for the progress of Black America, Obama included. Now, to Tavis’ credit, he is correct. However, to Tavis’ detriment, his timing hasn’t always been the best. He seems to mistime when the people are feeling Obama or when the people might not be trying to feel Tavis in his untimely critiques of the president. And he more than anyone, has experienced the pushback from that. First on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which he gave up immediately after he first came with the accountability argument. And now, more recently, as he called for accountability of Black leaders to press President Obama on “Black issues.” What are “Black issues?” Historically, they are jobs, education, health care, prison re-entry and economic development of deprived communities. All issues listed in Smiley’s covenant. Tavis is pushing Obama and Black leaders to be accountable to the covenant. Black leaders, namely Al Sharpton, have pushed back. Some of the argument is legitimate, some of it is not. Yeah, Tavis may not be the best one to advance the argument for a Black agenda, because his history of Obama criticism makes his argument look more like sour grapes than prime rib (bonafide contention). But the legitimacy of Tavis’ argument should not be ignored. Smiley’s lack of credibility as an Obama supporter shouldn’t undermine the point he’s raising. It’s not like Obama is picking up the phone whenever Black leadership is calling on the Black agenda question. Just like the president had to go into the Republican lion’s den to refute criticism on health care and their perception that he was ignoring them, maybe it is time for President Obama to have a conversation with Black America about the state of Black America, and what he is doing (if anything) about it. He certainly shouldn’t think that he is above explaining himself on it.
Now, we all know President Obama is not going to put his fist in the air, yell “Black Power,” and wear his dashiki to the White House lawn barbecue. We know that. And he has done some things in the context of economic stimulus, education (race to the top), and the green initiatives that will help mitigate the urban crisis in America. But what stops him from acknowledging the disproportionate effects that the vestiges of slavery and segregation have created? Is that something we should leave to the next president? And is it something we could expect the next president to even address if we didn’t ask the current president--yes, the Black president--to address it. As Tavis has learned, criticizing a “first” poses great risks. “Firsts” are often sacred cows that Black people protect because they don’t want them to fail and don’t want other Black people “bringing ‘em down.” I found that out 20 years ago when I publicly criticized Los Angeles first Black mayor, Tom Bradley, for underdeveloping the Black community and not speaking out on police abuse issues. Bradley, a former policeman, never considered himself a “Black mayor” and the Black community suffered in his effort to be “mayor of all the people.” All the “other people” prospered during the five-term mayor’s tenure and South Central-Southwest Los Angeles remained economically depressed. Bradley finally admitted his failures after the 1992 riots and Los Angeles burned a second time in 27 years, but you’d thought I talked about Jesus the way people came at me for calling for Bradley to “take care of home,” the Black community he came from. The issue is the same with President Obama. He can’t forget where he came from, and when his communities call, “answer the phone, damn it.” Don’t tell us who else you represent. I think that’s all Tavis Smiley is trying to say, amid all the noise.
We’re all hoping Tavis doesn’t blow himself up on this Obama accountability thing because we need Tavis, like we need Oprah, Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Michael Baisden and other mass communicators that help get our point of view, and our issues, out there. Did it need to be said? Hmmm, maybe it did. Does it need to become a protracted public debate? Not really. We just need to remind the president there is a Black agenda he needs to address, and not in the context of anybody, or everybody’s, agenda. That is what Tavis is doing. The president shouldn’t hide behind Black leadership who have access, while they sing a song, as Tavis says, “that we all don’t know,” namely that “the president doesn’t need a Black agenda.” Don’t deny what we all know is the real help Black America needs. It’s not a subject that you have to run from. And when your community calls, Brother President, just pick up the phone.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com
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