Obama Needs a Black Agenda

Laura S. Washington

The first black president of the United States cannot credibly govern without a national black agenda. But don’t depend on him to front it.

Black America must demand that Obama cease pandering to the People of the Gun and launch a crusade for practical solutions to urban violence.

For the last 22 months, Sen. Barack Obama had one priority: getting elected. 

Black progressives have a different, urgent mission: to put meat on the bones of a black economic and social compact. 

It’s payback time.

Obama surged into the White House because he is one of the New Blacks – coalition-minded progressives who eschew tradition and piecemeal, narrow agendas. The New Blacks don’t take their cues from the Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons and Tavis Smileys. 

Obama knows that if black people allow parochial and self-interested operators to nibble away at his ankles, black America will be the biggest loser. 

But the conversation is long overdue. 

Obama’s dodge around race was exquisitely choreographed. Practically the only black concerns he has addressed are his weak nod to affirmative action and his stump-speech admonishments to wayward black fathers and that trifling Cousin Pookie” – a name he often referenced in his speeches to black audiences. In a March 2007 sermon at Brown Chapel in Selma, Ala., Obama declared: If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter’ and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.”

Since his landmark speech in 2004 in Boston, Obama dismissed the red-state, blue-state paradigm and argued that there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and a Latino America – there’s the United States of America.” It was lame, but it worked.

Still, that notion is an aspiration, not an accomplishment. Come Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, pressure groups will be tearing up the playing field to score points with the man. Black folks will be no different. Obama’s shadow base produced a monumental turnout, and that gives us major dibs.

Black progressives need to now lay out an agenda. Start with equitable educational opportunities for African Americans. Fifty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, black schoolchildren are still relegated to the bottom of the educational opportunity barrel. Urban schools – which have a disproportionate number of black students – need more resources than their relatively meager tax bases can support. 

Take another look at bugaboos like vouchers. Build more charter schools. It’s time to jettison the fraudulent No Child Left Behind initiative and replace it with a no-nonsense plan.

There is one non-negotiable item: Black America must demand that Obama cease pandering to the People of the Gun and launch a crusade for solutions to urban violence. During his campaign, dozens of Chicago-area children have been slaughtered in the streets – in Obama’s own backyard.

On the eve of the historical presidential vote, nearly 5,000 mourners filed into an Apostolic church on Chicago’s South Side to mourn the murders of three members of Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson’s family. The youngest was 7. Hudson’s glittering talent made her famous, but it couldn’t shield her from the insidious flow of guns that is decimating our cities.

The Obama epic offers a glimmer of hope to some. On The​Root​.com, an online commentary outlet from the African-American perspective, writer Melanie Eversley posits that Obama’s victory will put beaucoup pep in the black man’s step. In The Obama Swagger,” she wrote: Maybe no group of Americans is more invested in the Obama phenomenon than black men who see in his success a transformation of their own public image.”

Maybe so, but on Jan. 20, tens of thousands of young black males will still be jobless, homeless or incarcerated within the prison-industrial complex. They’ve got some bigger problems than rehabilitating their public images.

Obama prevailed in the election in part because he brought a multiracial identity and global perspective that undermined America’s entrenched racial, ethnic and economic differences. He can – and must – govern beyond the base. 

Still, he will step into the Oval Office courtesy of overwhelming turnouts dug out of the red hills of Georgia – and the gritty concrete of New Jersey. 

Black folks are ecstatic about making history, but we can’t afford to settle for history. In 21st century America, a national black agenda is urgent and overdue. There may be a New Black at the helm, but it’s still the same old U.S. of A. 

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.
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