Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Black Agenda: Mr. President, Would You Just Answer The Phone

Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad
A Black Agenda: Mr. President, Would You Just Answer The Phone

by Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad

There has been much ado about the very public feud television commentator, Tavis Smiley, is having with civil rights activist, Al Sharpton, over Tavis' criticism of Black leadership reportedly saying that President Barack Obama doesn't need a "Black agenda" after recently visiting the White House. It's caused a firestrom of controversy, and a revival of the annual State of the Black Union conference that Smiley had discontinued.

Many wondered why it took so long for the President to meet with Black leaders, 13 months after taking the oath of office. Black leaders gave him a pass on it, stating that the president's been busy, and that he's not just president of Black America, he's president of all America. Well, that set Tavis off. Now we should examine why black leaders would say that, and why it should be the issue Tavis Smiley says it is. Black America does want to know what the agenda is.

Of course we know he's president of all the people. We got that, but what is the real significance of laying claim to the first African American president is a core constituency cannot ask for anything? Therein lays the source of Tavis' position and the pushback that he's getting. Let me say, first of all, that Tavis is a friend and we've always disagreed on some aspect of the Obama phenomenon. That didn't stop either of us from supporting him or being friends. We just agree to disagree. However, Tavis has developed a reputation of being a hardened Obama critic. As artchitect of "the Covenant with Black America," Tavis' whole mantra is that we all must hold each other accountable for the progress of Black America. Obama included. Now, to Tavis' credit, he is correct. However, to Tavis' detriment, his timing hasn't always been the best. He seems to miss-time when the people are feeling Obama, or when the people might not be trying to him on his untimely critiques of the President.
Now more recently, as he called for accountability of Black leaders to press President Obama on "Black issues." What are "Black issues?" Historically, they are jobs, education, heath care, prison re-entry and economic development of deprived communities. All issues listed in Smiley's covenant. Black leaders, namely Al Sharpton, have pushed back. Some of the argument is legitimate, some of it is not. Yeah, Tavis may not be the best one to advance the argument for a black agenda, because his history of Obama criticism makes his argument look more like sour grapes than prime rib (bonafide contention). But the legitimacy of Tavis' argument should not be ignored. Maybe it is time for President Obama to have a conversation with black America about the state of Black America, and what he is doing (if anything) about it. He certainly shouldn't think that he is above explaining himself on it.

Now, we all know President Obama is not going to put his fist in the air, yell "Black Power," and wear his dashiki to the White House lawn barbecue.

And he was done something's in the context of economic stimulus, education (Race to the Top) and the green initiatives that will help mitigate the urban crisis in America. But what stops him from acknowledging the disproportionate effects that the vestiges of slavery and segregation have created. Is it something we could expect the next president to even address if we didn't ask the current - the Black - president to address it? He can't forget where he came from, and when his communities call, "answer the phone, dammit." Don't tell us who else you represent. I think that's all Tavis Smiley is trying to say, amid all the noise.

We're all hoping Tavis doesn't blow himself up on this Obama accountability thing because we need Tavis, like we need Oprah, Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Michael Baisden and other mass communicators who help get our point of view and our issues out there. Did it need to be said? Hmmm, maybe it did. Does it need to become a protracted public debate? Not really. We just need to remind the president there is a Black agenda he needs to address, and not in the context of anybody's or everybody's, agenda. The president shouldn't hide behind Black leadership who have access, while they sing a song, as Tavis says, "that we all don't know," namely that "the president doesn't need a Black agenda." 

Don't deny what we all know is the real help Black America needs. It's not a subject that you have to run from. And when your community calls, Brother President, just pick up the phone.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and an author. His current writings and commentaries can be read at

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