What Has Barack Obama Done for Black America?

Tavis Smiley gathers prominent black leaders, intellectuals and activists to take the president to task.

Laura S. Washington

President Barack Obama greets attendees after signing an executive order for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on February 26, 2010. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — When you talk black agenda and Tavis Smiley, it’s crucial to separate the message from the messenger. Saturday’s symposium, We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda,” was riveting political theater. But like the best drama, it also got some business done.

'How long are you gonna sit around begging white people to do for us what we have the power to do for ourselves?' Farrakhan said, to roars from the crowd.

Smiley organized and hosted the forum, held on Saturday, March 20, at Chicago State University on the city’s South Side. The confab offered up a provocative query: Is there room for a black agenda in the post-racial America” of Barack Obama?

Smiley, Obama’s self-appointed chief critic, has been calling him out since the 2008 presidential campaign. The PBS talk show host questions Obama’s loyalty to African-American interests. In a re-issue of that old not-black enough” tune, Smiley says that Obama has not focused on African American needs and demands that black leaders push the president on an urban agenda for the black masses.”

Obama would argue that he was elected president of the United States, not the chief executive of black America. He would posit that African Americans are a crucial thread in the nation’s economic, cultural and political fabric, and by advancing the nation’s well-being, he is elevating black America. Smiley and others retort that a post-racial society is a myth. African Americans are in dire straits and languish at the bottom of most socio-economic scales. Thus, our first black president should lead the charge in championing our people.

It should be noted there was no one there to speak for the president. Smiley maintained that he had asked the White House to send an Obama defender, but got no takers. They were invited to be at this table,” Smiley said.

Still, the televised event drew about 3,000 people, who showed up before 8 a.m. in Chicago’s classic snow-sleet spring to hear Smiley lead a four-hour conversation among 12 black intellectuals, educators and activists. The mix included longtime Smiley compatriots, academics like Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Julianne Malveaux. Others were longtime black leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. Most of them came, they said, to lovingly” take Obama to the woodshed.

Smiley and co. are juggling a political double whammy: Obama’s promise of change” set high expectations at a low moment in our economy. Americans, particularly black Americans, were looking to the first black in the White House to make things better. Instead, they got worse.

Many seem to have forgotten an old watchword of the hood: By the time they let a black person take charge, things are broken.

The speakers ticked off an endless string of sad statistics. The black unemployment rate is 15.8 percent, compared with 9.7 percent overall. Similar disparities exist in educational achievement, infant mortality, life expectancy, mortgage foreclosures and student loan defaults. As Jackson put it, we need heavy lifting from the bottom.”

Smiley’s questions were consistent with his previous posturing, suggesting that Obama had not delivered for black folks. And he won his share of amens” from the assembled chorus.

The most reasonable commentary came from the person who usually speaks with a fiery tongue. Perennial Farrakhan demonizers may disagree, but I found that the longtime black Muslim leader made the most sense. Farrakhan delivered a nuanced and potent critique of Obama’s dance with black America. He pledged his love for our brilliant” president, while advising African Americans that the responsibility for real change lies with us.

I, like you, are very proud that a black man sits in the White’ House,” Farrakhan intoned, then paused as rolling laughs filled the auditorium. Blacks, added, must exercise power to force that house to address our agenda.”

It’s another version of Farrakhan’s trademark call for personal and political accountability. We have come up with black agendas, but we’ve been looking to the wrong people to fulfill our agenda,” he says. Do you think that having a black face in the White House means that we don’t have to make him do it?”

Even the president of the United States has many masters. Our brother was selected before he was elected,” Farrakhan said. (The minister got my amen” on that one. But why is it that our black elders think we need to be communicated to in rhymes?)

How long are you gonna sit around begging white people to do for us what we have the power to do for ourselves?” he added, to roars from the crowd. 

It’s already been too long. And how long will we continue to run away from the reality that Obama would not have been selected or elected if he had campaigned on a black agenda? You still can’t even use the term black” or race” in this country without putting white people on edge.

Even debating Obama’s race loyalty poses grave risks, Farrakhan warned. He repeatedly raised the specter of assassination and suggested that Obama’s enemies might interpret dissension among blacks as a sign of weakness. If the media mistakes our loving critique, admonition, rebuke and exhortation to our brother,” he argued, it could be a stamp of approval on a death warrant for our brother.”

The conversation climaxed when Farrakhan added, to screams and hoots from the audience: So I say to all of you in this room and all who are watching by television: We need to pray for our brother and his family and warn America: Leave that brother alone!”

The discomfort on the panel was palpable. Perhaps in a nation where assassination has felled so many men of charisma and history, that’s the right feeling to have.

Despite Farrakhan’s well-placed words, there was also more than enough empty rhetoric and pandering to black victimization. Take the verbally prolific Michael Eric Dyson, the peripatetic Georgetown University professor. His bombastic rant took a direct hit at the president.

Dyson spun out a series of elliptical analogies, worked himself up into a lather, then went over the line. Arguing that Obama should not be compared to historic greats like Martin Luther King, he shouted, You think Obama is Moses. He is not Moses. He’s Pharaoh! You’ve got to understand that… .” Dyson was interrupted by the biggest boo’s” of the morning.

My own discomfort was rooted in the realization that this was another one of those sessions that featured black elites speaking from the mountain top. There was plenty of talk about black poverty and despair, but these leaders” enjoy alphabets after their names, frequent flyer miles and high-flying TV profiles. They live lives far removed from the grassroots.

The discussion unearthed many problems, but was bereft of solutions. Where is the follow-up?

Smiley’s decision to bring his accountability show to Chicago could be seen as merely a slick marketing maneuver. The city is Obama’s political birthplace and the home turfs of Jackson and Farrakhan, black icons and known Obama critics who always draw a crowd. The gathering also confirmed that, by many measures, Chicago remains ground zero for African-American politics and culture.

The fact that this discussion even occurred is a sign of progress. African Americans have forever been loath to expose our secrets to outsiders.” Criticizing our elected leadership has also been taboo.

Now the dirty laundry is on the table. Let’s dispense with the rhymes and rhetoric and get pushing. After all, if the black agenda is the American agenda, isn’t the American agenda the black agenda?

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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