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What Ails the Black Body Politic

BY James Thindwa

Black political engagement is indispensable to the movement-building necessary to enact a real progressive agenda.

The direction the Obama administration takes in the next two years depends in part on popular pressure. But ironically, those who suffer the most are the least politically agitated. This disjuncture is evident in the uncritical support President Barack Obama receives from the black body politic.

Polls show that 90 percent of African Americans approve of the president’s job performance, compared to 40 percent of white Democrats. This raises the question: Can Black America, experiencing newfound pride in the first black president, challenge a Democratic Party in the grip of neoliberal orthodoxy and help reinvigorate progressive politics?

Measured against indices of economic well-being, black support for the president is incongruous. Black unemployment is a staggering 16.1 percent (and that figure does not include the tens of millions of people who have given up looking for work). Home foreclosures will consume between $71 and $122 billion of black community assets. Homelessness has increased dramatically, with disproportionate impact on black families.

To be sure, there is sympathy for the president across the board, with 71 percent of the electorate still blaming George W. Bush for the economic crisis. In addition, President Obama has endured scurrilous torment from the right. And strategic drift among progressive groups has hobbled healthcare reform, immigrant rights, and the antiwar and climate justice movements. The end result: a watered-down healthcare reform bill, defeat of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, unfettered war-making, and no climate change legislation.

Black voices of dissent feel stifled. CNN commentator Roland Martin describes fissures in the “complex relationship” between black leadership and President Obama. He recalls how black leaders were angered by Obama’s failure to seriously consider black women for the Supreme Court. Martin says black leaders avoid direct criticism out of fear that they will be “cut off from the administration” or face community backlash.

In a powerful example of that hard-ball approach to criticism, seven prominent civil rights groups once opposed President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” citing the education plan’s overreliance on “competitive funding and hand-picking winners.” But that critique has since evaporated. Word has it that the White House quickly pressured these errant civil rights leaders to tow the line.

The fact is, black political engagement is indispensable to the movement-building necessary to enact a real progressive agenda. Throughout history, African Americans have dissented, advocated and protested–translating those actions into public policy.

That tradition is now being challenged. Black writer Ishmael Reed charges white, liberal and left critics of Obama as “out of touch” with Obama’s base of blacks and Latinos. New York Times columnist Charles Blow berates the “far left” for “foaming at the mouth” over the 2010 budget compromise, with its dramatic giveaways to the rich and its threat to Social Security.

Instead of believing that a more progressive vision is achievable, we are told to accept limitations. We should not question the wisdom of a president making an ideologically sensitive budget deal without consulting his party’s elected representatives. We should not question why he failed to pressure recalcitrant legislators by rallying their constituents. Nor should we question why such a crucial policy issue was subjected to last minute, end-of-year brinkmanship.

For Obama to declare exclusive knowledge of the parameters of public policy debate based on his own observations is truly arrogant. We must ask hard questions. How will Democrats let Bush-era tax cuts and the freeze on the Social Security tax expire in 2012–a presidential election year? How will they overcome the predictable accusation that “Democrats want to raise your taxes?”

In this moment, it is worth recalling how Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign: “We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses…those who have known long years of hurt and neglect…to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”

James Thindwa is a member of In These Times' Board of Directors and a labor and community activist.

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