The continuing controversy among some high-profile Blacks over whether President Barack Obama should have a Black agenda is largely wrongheaded. He will not explicitly embrace a “Black Agenda” as such, but does have an obligation to respond to Blacks’ concerns, like he does for other groups. Increasingly, Blacks realize that expecting favored treatment from Obama is unrealistic. Given presidential constraints–and his political priorities thus far, it is conceivable that Blacks may not even get fair treatment. But it is our collective responsibility, not his, to craft proposals and demands that reflect the Black community’s interests.
Recently, the already heated debate about Obama and a Black agenda got even hotter with the widely publicized clash between Princeton professors Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry. West’s abrasive assessment of Obama included an accusation that the president was not acting as “a free Black man.” Harris-Perry quickly dismissed her colleague’s diatribe as personal, not political.
The broadening public discussion about a “Black Agenda” prompted me to revisit my pervious column, “Should Obama Have a Black Agenda Is the Wrong Question” that examined the same contentious issue. That column, slightly amended, follows:
Clarity is essential since there is no universal definition of a Black agenda. Last year, Tavis Smiley said he was very concerned that national leaders who had met with President Obama are “singing a new song,” i.e., that Obama does not need a Black agenda. However, Smiley who does not define “Black agenda” asks, “… why shouldn’t Blacks make specific demands?”, an appropriate but substantively different question than whether Obama should have a Black agenda.
Early in 2010, Reverend Al Sharpton was quoted in the mainstream press as saying, “The group’s meeting with the president was not a “race” meeting, nor a meeting on Black issues, it was, and will remain, a focus on the basic right of all people to be self-sustained and gainfully employed.” This buttresses Wests’ and others’ claim that the group, that included Sharpton, NAACP’s Benjamin Jealous and Urban League’s Marc Morial, supports Obama’s “a rising tide lifts all boats” contention by soft-pedaling the need for discernible focus on Black concerns.
(A blogger offered this provocative take: “Smiley cannot look at a real Black president in the eye and give him the benefit of a doubt…….Sharpton and other civil rights leaders are forced to do the dirty work on racial equality because our Black president has been terrorized into political silence on issues of race”.)
Dr. Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, says one of its major goals is to discuss issues of concern to Black people, no matter who is in the White House. In 2008, the Institute created A Presidential Accountability Commission, which monitors how Black issues are addressed by the Obama Administration. Its purpose: “To institutionalize an important dimension of Black politics.”
Arguably, one of the most prominent efforts to build a Black agenda was the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Daniels describes it as “one of the most profound statements of Black interests and inspirations in the 20th Century.” Although a landmark, lamentably, neither Gary nor similar efforts since were sustainable. Daniels notes that the mission statement of The Million Man March and political agendas developed for the Millions More Movement were admirable but none had long-range follow-through.
Daniels says that what Black America needs is political systems and processes based on principles long advanced by Black civil rights groups. “What Blacks (collectively) can agree to seems less important than preventing every individual ego from posturing so that we can present an agenda to the president.”
In a Los Angeles Sentinel column, “Reaffirming Our Right to Exist: A Transformative Black Agenda,” Dr. Maulana Karenga provides a succinct analysis of current implications of systemic factors that “question Blacks’ existence, affirmation and agenda.” Karenga asserts, “One of the greatest problems in the world is the power to define reality and make others accept it, even when it’s to their disadvantage…..While we are taught, and often feel compelled to praise others for the practice and preservation of their culture….we are the only people who are deemed and denounced as too much of themselves, too concerned with their culture, ‘too Black.”
Both Ron Daniels’ and Maulana Karenga’s analyses are relevant to the discussion of Obama and a Black agenda but their respective positions also underscore that efforts to bring Blacks together must be forged from our common history and common ground. Karenga: “….(Building such an agenda)….must take place in a framework that respects our history as a moral and social vanguard in this country and the world.”
Of course, Blacks should insist that President Obama addresses Blacks’ concerns and demands, understanding that he will most likely do so when they emanate from sustainable collaborative efforts by Blacks themselves. Such collaboration is immensely more important than contentious public debates about a “Black agenda.”
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.