Recently, Dr. Cornel West and his academic homeboy, Eddie Glaude, spoke up about black suffering that has occurred during the presidency of Barack Obama. Glaude and West feel that the Obama Administration has leveraged its strong support from the black community as an opportunity to engage in serious political neglect. White Americans have seen dramatic improvements in economic conditions since the recession started, while black Americans have gone backward.
“As folks rally to support POTUS in Charlotte, will anyone sound the alarm for what is happening in Black America?” Glaude said on Twitter.
As expected, fans of President Obama will interpret Glaude and West’s remarks as political mutiny of the worst kind. Even as America endures record poverty levels, and African Americans see an unemployment crisis that has hardly slowed over the last four years, some will presume that none of this has to do with the White House.
It’s as if black people don’t want to hold Barack Obama accountable for anything that happens in America, like the mother who uses racism as an excuse for allowing her 31-year old son to sit in the basement and play Xbox all day long. If Barack didn’t get anything done for black folks, it must be because Republicans blocked him with their racism, he’s too busy or black people need to get off their lazy butts and do it themselves. The degree of dependency that the Democrats seem to show when begging for African American votes wouldn’t dare be matched by the community asking for something in return.
What I find to be a bit contradictory about those who criticize men like West and Glaude who have the courage to speak up on such matters is that it is presumed that advocating for black America is somehow anti-Obama. When someone says, “I’d like the president to do more for black America,” they are simply doing what any other political constituency does when they meet with the president: Hispanic leaders say, “I want President Obama to do more for our people.” Those who support gay rights and women’s rights do the same. Without an in-kind response from the White House, they vote for someone else.
Keeping Barack Obama honest is not just what we should do, it’s what he wants us to do. An entire demographic handing power over to a politician and asking for nothing in return is like giving someone a paycheck and not asking them to come to work. Even the employee might look at you like you’re crazy.
This perception that black American problems are not significant enough for a “busy and important” president to address is a reflection of the low self-esteem of descendants of slaves, who’ve always been made to believe that their suffering isn’t relevant. As a result, whites are allowed to be angry about seven percent unemployment, while black people are expected to remain silent about 14 percent unemployment. That, my friends, is an artifact of racism, because we’ve been programmed to believe that we shouldn’t disturb president Obama while he deals with important white people.
One of the criticisms of the entire black community that some have levied is that we can’t agree on what we want, thus giving the administration an excuse for ignoring African American interests. Part of the reason that we can’t agree on what we want from the president is because specific leaders in the black community have chosen to mute their own voices so as to allow the Obama Administration to operate without being “disturbed” by the petty problems of black America.
I don’t speak for everyone, but here are a few things that I believe the black community needs:
1) Targeted economic policy that addresses the black unemployment problem. No president (white or black) should be allowed to preside without dealing with racial inequality as a persistent American problem.
2) Better schools in the inner cities and incentives that will attract good teachers
3) A response to the urban violence epidemic that is plaguing cities like Chicago, where black men are more likely to die than any other group in America: As we console shooting victims in Colorado, we must remember that there were far more people murdered in Chicago this year. Their lives are just as valuable as those in Colorado.
4) A presidential executive order that directly confronts the mass incarceration epidemic that resulted from the failed war on drugs: Modifying the crack-to-powder disparity to 18-to-1 (from 100-to-1) still implies that a five year sentence is converted to 90 years, so it really doesn’t mean a thing.
Rev. Jesse Jackson also mentioned poverty as a serious issue that he’d like to see addressed by President Obama. All the evidence agrees with Rev. Jackson on this matter: There are now 46 million Americans in poverty, giving us poverty rates that haven’t been this high since the 1960s. With all the talk about gay marriage and abortion at the Democratic National Convention, it’s disheartening that some care about these matters more than the death and starvation of our nation’s children.
Some of us have been led to believe that advocating for Obama is the same as advocating for black America. But many of these same people believe that advocating for black America is inherently anti-Obama. The fact is that the two should be one-in-the-same, and if they are not, we must ask ourselves why this asymmetry exists. Speaking up for the suffering of black people does not mean hating the president; it simply means that we’re asking for policy in exchange for our votes. This is what President Obama expects us to do, and it is far more patriotic than forcing free voices into silence.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. He also appears in the Janks Morton film “Hoodwinked.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.