Friday, March 19, 2010

A Delicate Balancing Act For The Black Agenda

A Delicate Balancing Act For The Black Agenda

Don Terry
March 18, 2010
New York Times

What a difference hard times make.

Until recently, most black discontent with the Obama administration — especially in Barack Obama’s hometown, Chicago — was largely kept in the family and out of the mainstream press, even as black business, civil rights and political leaders quietly grappled with and debated how best to support and challenge the nation’s first black president without hurting the causes of racial and economic justice.

But as the economic crisis continues to slam black America disproportionately hard, while bonuses rain down on Wall Street, the debate has spilled into the open and will get its loudest and most public hearing yet on Saturday, in a forum held just a few miles from Mr. Obama’s house in Kenwood, at Chicago State University.

Tavis Smiley, an author and talk show host and a frequent — and until recently rare — black critic of the president, is scheduled to convene a panel of civil rights leaders and scholars called “We Count: The Black Agenda Is the American Agenda.”

The discussion will be nationally televised on C-Span, and the invited panelists include Cornel West, a Princeton University professor; Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

“A black agenda is jobs, jobs, jobs, quality education, investment in infrastructure and strong democratic regulation of corporations,” Dr. West said. “The black agenda, at its best, looks at America from the vantage point of the least of thee and asks what’s best for all.”

During his run to the White House, voters, black and white, projected all sorts of hopes and dreams onto Mr. Obama, no matter what he said or did. When it comes to race, for example, Mr. Obama has forcefully tried to avoid the subject. The one notable exception was his now-famous speech in Philadelphia in 2008, and only then when his campaign was in peril from the fiery words of his former Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright.

Mr. Obama’s black supporters were willing to give him a pass, to give him “time to learn his way around the White House.” But too many homes have been lost to foreclosure, too many fathers have lost jobs, too many mothers are losing hope for his most loyal bloc to be happy with what many are now saying is more symbolism than substance coming from Mr. Obama’s administration in regard to black America.

“The question I hear a lot on the street is, ‘Would we have been better off with Hillary Clinton?’ ” said Hermene D. Hartman, publisher of the weekly N’Digo newspaper in Chicago.

Others, though, like Jacky Grimshaw, a senior adviser to former Mayor Harold Washington, are reading more into the timing and location of the black agenda meeting 14 months into Mr. Obama’s presidency.

“If the idea is to embarrass the president,” Ms. Grimshaw said, “this is a good way of doing it.”
Given Mr. Smiley’s vocal criticism of Mr. Obama — raising questions about the president’s effectiveness in pursuing the agenda many black voters favor — some see the meeting as a sign of a division among blacks here and across the country. On one side are those who believe Mr. Obama is doing his best under tough circumstances. On the other are those who feel let down by a perceived lack of action by Mr. Obama on behalf of black Americans. By hosting the forum in Chicago, Mr. Smiley seems to be spotlighting the discussion in a place most likely to draw national attention.

Mr. Smiley said the goal of the event was not to attack or embarrass Mr. Obama in his Chicago backyard, but to pressure other black leaders to develop and press for a black agenda, an action plan for tackling poverty, poor schools, infant mortality and an unemployment rate among blacks that is at least twice the national average.

“Black people are getting crushed,” Mr. Smiley said.

No one argues that point. But since announcing the event last month, Mr. Smiley and the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of Mr. Obama’s most vocal supporters — “Barack’s pet preacher,” as one Chicago activist put it — have conducted a sometimes heated debate on black radio about the wisdom of convening the “We Count” panel discussion.

Mr. Sharpton seems to have the numbers on his side. Support for Mr. Obama among black Americans is hovering around 90 percent in polls.

Mr. Sharpton said he would not attend the Chicago gathering. “Yes, we need a black agenda,” he said. “But the president shouldn’t be leading it. Black leaders should be.”

Herman Brewer, the acting president and chief executive of the Chicago Urban League, expects to attend, although with some trepidation.

“I think it’s O.K. if folks are critical of the president,” Mr. Brewer said. “But I wouldn’t want it to be viewed as a condemnation, a smackdown of the president. Hopefully, it can be viewed as constructive.”

Mark Allen, a longtime civil rights advocate on the South Side, said that just a couple of months ago if he had made even a mild public criticism about Mr. Obama’s not doing enough for the poor or for small businesses in the inner city, “black middle class folks would curse me out.”

The message was clear: If you are black, you just didn’t air complaints about “our homeboy,” Mr. Allen said, certainly not in public where the news media could see and hear. Doing so was seen as undermining the first black president, of giving comfort to the enemy, of betraying the race.
But these days, even in Chicago, Mr. Allen said: “It’s not as taboo anymore. You get cursed out a lot less.”

Some blacks in Chicago seem to be having a case of unrequited love.

“Barack is ignoring the black community,” said Ms. Hartman, the publisher. “There’s no communication, no reaching out, no speaking out. Every black business I know is hurting. Trickle down is not trickling down.”

Mr. Obama worked 20 years ago as a community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on Chicago’s South Side. There, Bamani Obadele, who runs a youth program in Roseland, and Cheryl Johnson, who runs an environmental justice organization at the sprawling development, recently discussed Mr. Obama and the We Count event.

Mr. Obadele said Mr. Obama attended several antiviolence rallies that Mr. Obadele organized in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development in the 1990s.

“He helped me carry a casket through the streets,” Mr. Obadele said, referring to an antiviolence mock funeral. “He absolutely understands the struggle of black folks. But he’s not the same Barack I knew. The Barack I knew wouldn’t bail out the banks and let the people go hungry. I think his advisers are giving him bad advice.”

Ms. Johnson said: “It’s complicated. He’s inherited a mess we haven’t experienced since the Great Depression. Let’s give him some time.”
Mr. Obadele added: “I hope we don’t end up being a national embarrassment on Saturday, fighting about the black president. I hope something positive comes out of it. But we have to do something. There’s just too much suffering out here.”

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