Black Infighting Over the Obama Presidency

In American politics, it’s often not what you say but who you are that matters most, and no one better exemplifies this tradition than Barack Obama. His background and perhaps moreso his foreground?that which we see when we look at Obama?has been an endless source of curiosity and opportunity across the range of the American political spectrum. For the black community in particular, Obama’s identity and politics have been an enigma. For many, the overriding question, given the nation’s horrific legacy of slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, and continuing racial disparities, is what will President Obama do to help his community?

The debate?having started well before he became president?is not only heating up but taking on a highly personal tone. Princeton professor of African American studies Cornel West has led the pack with personalizing the issue in framing his critique of what Obama means for the black community. Professor West is followed not too far behind by black media kingpin Tavis Smiley. Both men have publicly declared themselves wounded by Obama’s affronts to their wish of being included in the inner circle of the first black presidency. Both men have morphed what appears to be their personal ambitions into the larger narrative regarding the struggle for the betterment of the black community.

Having not only bemoaned Obama’s failure to essentially be his friend (friends call friends back when they leave a message), West has now taken the slight to the next level by calling Obama names. President Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats,” West contends. He even goes after Obama’s mother for being white.

But many seasoned activists and certainly the overwhelming majority of African Americans say that the strategy is wrong?as ad hominem approaches usually are?and the real issues are being obscured by the playground squabbles making the headlines. There is a real and urgent need to shift the debate on Obama’s relationship with the black community from private individuals’ issues and will-I-or-won’t-I half-heartedness about broaching the topic into an actual nuanced strategy that negotiates the fine line between pandering to extremist views and advancing the needs of a black community that is on so many levels seeing its worst days in generations.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, who has become a leading figure in Obama’s black community outreach strategy, has strongly condemned black criticism of Obama, instead arguing for an insider strategy that negotiates with the administration. Sharpton’s somewhat hands-off approach signals a real fear that reiterating Obama’s black status will hurt his chances of re-election amongst whites and potentially open the door for a far more reactionary conservative candidate to win.

As joblessness continues to rise?above 16.5% among blacks, as opposed to 8% amongst whites?housing foreclosures devastate black families, and criminal justice practices continue to disintegrate black family structures and prosperity, black America is openly struggling against a potentially historic social and economic collapse during the very time that the first black president is in office. There seems to be little doubt, at least as Obama’s first term comes to an end, that African Americans will have fared worse than when he came into office. For Obama’s opponents, black and otherwise, that data will be the central theme for judging his administration.

But to what degree is expanding black emmiseration Obama’s fault? Clearly, Obama carries some of the blame, particularly his failure to use the office as a bully pit for challenging the nation to resolve the harmful racial disparities that exist. Yet, in a political system of complex and vexing checks and balances, realpolitik also limits the president’s ability to change political directions. These facts, though too often buried in the backpages, fortunately have not been lost on some longstanding leaders in the community.

The rising voice of a middle ground is signaling some hope. Black leaders like Harry Belafonte, a Hollywood star whose history of progressive activism in the black community goes back to the early days of the civil rights movement, have proclaimed a more constructive and productive approach to Obama’s relations with the black community and its needs. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Belafonte stated that it is in Obama’s interest to be pushed into addressing black policy and political priorities. This can be accomplished by a multi-pronged strategy.

If Obama advances legislation that is desperately needed by a wide range of Americans, the needs of blacks can also be addressed without risking alienation of the dominant power structure. Joblessness is a key area. Unemployment rates among blacks haven’t been this bad since the Great Depression. If Obama presses toward targeted job reform legislation, he will not only have addressed the foremost needs of millions of working class and jobless Americans, he will have taken a massive step toward helping the black community in particular.

At the same time, the administration and Congressional progressives should also push for targeted policies that specifically address issues that will not be met by a generalized approach. Rural communities, for example, have different needs than urban ones. In that sense, low-skilled, low-educated African American males have different employability concerns than semi-skilled, low-educated white females.

Attention to poverty and working class needs that also addresses the interests of marginalized racial communities has proven to be a successful model for other politicians in the past and not just in the United States. Former president Lula Ignacio da Silva of Brazil lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty with one swipe of his Bolsa Familia (Family Stipend) legislation. Brazil, like the United States, is a racially diverse and ethnically mixed population but targeted legislation like the Bolsa Familia worked wonders toward satisfying an urgent and primary need of a massive segment of the population while also carefully tending to the needs, in part, of black Brazilians who could have been lost in the shuffle of reform and stagnation once again.

Belafonte and his cohorts believe that the black community can not only advance its needs but advance Obama’s presidency and re-election by steering Obama on track toward policies that are desperately overdue for the long suffering working and lower classes of America.

In other words, make Obama the kind of president he states he wants to be.

What is needed is not name-calling, agonized resentments, and tantrums but a mass mobilization toward that kind of policy change ? something former community organizer Obama knows all too well.

Clarence Lusane, Ph.D., is the program director/associate professor of comparative and regional studies in the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of many books, including The Black History of the White House, published earlier in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.

Shirin Sadeghi is Host of New America Now radio in San Francisco and is a former producer and reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera. She is a featured commentator on the Huffington Post and Pakistan’s national daily newspaper, Pakistan Today and has a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies.



More articles by:
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex