Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Panel Rightfully Questions Priority Of Black Concerns

Panel Rightfully Questions Priority Of Black Concerns
Mary Mitchell
Chicago Sun-Times

March 21, 2010

There is a good reason why President Obama got a public spanking from some disenchanted black supporters Saturday.

Black people are struggling with what it means to have a black man in the White House at a time when so many African Americans are still struggling disproportionately to capture the American dream.

While no one expected Obama to reverse the ravages of discrimination overnight, there is a growing concern that the historic plight of African Americans is not a priority for his administration.

That may be an unfair assessment.

But the president has done too little publicly to make the case otherwise.

Obama has also done a poor job of responding to many of the influential people who showed him love.

Thanks to the participation of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, nearly 3,000 Chicagoans braved a snow shower to hear a panel of highly respected economists, civil rights activists and academics wrestle with how to hold Obama accountable to black voters.

"Obama was selected before he was elected,'' Farrakhan said, suggesting that the black agenda is not a priority of those behind Obama's successful White House bid.

His critics are requesting that Obama specifically target African Americans for jobs because of their higher unemployment rate.

"We have to push Obama in such a way that he doesn't tilt too much toward the strong. We are not here to ask permission from anybody to talk about the black agenda,'' said Princeton scholar Cornel West.

What took place on the campus of Chicago State University can't be chalked up to petty spites and jealousies.

What began as a squabble between talk show host Tavis Smiley and the Rev. Al Sharpton over black leadership's role in the era of a black president has mushroomed into a full-fledged debate.

That this discussion took place on the eve of Obama's herculean effort to pass health-care reform, and in his adopted hometown, shows that there is a disconnect between his administration and some of the nation's most influential African-American activists.

These are some of the people Obama aggressively courted during his campaign for the presidency.

To Smiley's credit, the conversation was not an Obama beat-down.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson focused his remarks on the importance of supporting the president's efforts to pass health-care reform.

Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, an Oakland, Calif.-based research and advocacy group, recited a laundry list of initiatives thus far by the Obama administration that benefit African Americans.

Pointing to the best-selling book The Black Covenant that set out the black agenda, Blackwell suggested that black people themselves have fallen down on the job.

"All the suggestions we made to the country, we haven't done it. Extraordinary things have happened because this president gets it,'' she said.

But former Ald. Dorothy Tillman disagreed.

"President Obama is not addressing the black agenda. Black Obama has been told that it is all right not to address our agenda,'' she said.

"By whom?'' Smiley asked.

"He's been told by the little birds in his ears,'' Tillman said.

And scholar and author Michael Eric Dyson, who has pressed Obama in the past to deal with the topic of race, gave a passionate plea for the president to address black concerns.

"I don't have to be white to be part of America,'' Dyson said.

"Latinos asked for something, and they got something. Gays and lesbians said: 'Don't ask, don't tell, change it.' Our Jewish brothers and sisters said, 'Deal with Israel,' you deal with them.

"Why is it when it comes to Negroes . . . when it comes to black folks, you are suddenly persona non grata?'' Dyson asked.

"I tell you that every president before you has had to deal with the black agenda. How are you going to be any different?''

The audience went wild with applause.

Just like the mother who says this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me before giving her child a whack, Smiley put a plastic cube on a table on stage with the word "Love'' etched on all sides before the conversation began.

There was a good reason for that move, as well.

Historically, blacks have shied away from publicly criticizing black leadership for fear of being accused of airing dirty laundry.

This is progress.

The black agenda cannot move forward unless blacks are willing to leave this taboo behind.

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