Many are quick to echo Steve Harvey and tell those that push President Obama to be more responsive to the needs of black folks that he is not just President of Black America, but, in fact, he is the President of the United States of America. The point they attempt to make is that the President cannot just cater to the needs of one constituency. He must, being president of all, cater to all perspectives. His recent comments should appease the All Lives Matter vote.
Recently, the Movement for Black Lives was discussed while President Barack Obama spoke at a London town hall. He praised Black Lives Matter for its ability to highlight issues, but criticized what he felt were lackluster efforts to create solutions. He said that “they yell too much” and that “yelling is not what will get the job done.”
We are disappointed. Almost hurt. And it’s not the first time.
The implication that Black Lives Matter is not doing its job correctly because they are not being polite in their dealings with lawmakers and politicians reeks of respectability politics. Somehow, the President has placed the responsibility of implementing socially just policy on private citizens, not the elected officials. He has shifted the burden onto BLM, but none of the support or benefits.
Like all citizens, members of the Black Lives Matter movement have a first amendment right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances”, even if that means they need to yell to get a point across. Also, to refer to the movement’s actions strictly as “yelling” distracts from their accomplishments and is a thinly-veiled attempt to silence them, or at the very least, make dealing with them more convenient. Black Lives Matter has no obligation to comply with either wish. This is all reminiscent of what happened on April 12, 1963.
A little over fifty years ago this month, eight white clergymen taught us that expressions of injustice do not always take the form of harmful language or acts of violence. In response to the civil rights protests taking place in their city, these men penned an open letter entitled “A Call For Unity.” They urged the “Negroes” of Birmingham, Alabama to exercise patience with what was, up until then, glacial racial progress. In the letter they stated:
…We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. (Emphasis my own)
These men are all but saying, “The good Negroes are being incited to action by those bad, outsider Negroes.” Their words reek of xenophobia (fear of the ‘other’) and unconscious racism (racial animus that the holder is unaware they possess).
In response to the clergymen, King felt compelled to respond. Sitting in a jail cell for the very demonstrations “A Call For Unity” decries, Martin King writes:
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
In just one paragraph, King links the struggle for racial justice in Birmingham to the cosmic struggle for justice everywhere. He even implies that Socrates (the father of the Western philosophical tradition) would approve. For King—who once said that if he was stranded with only two books to read, he would want a copy of the Bible and Plato’s Republic— one could have no greater intellectual ally.
The eight clergymen’s plea for patience rings hollow. They sit in relative comfort, and either fail or refuse to see that they are benefactors in a racial system that exploits black folks in the South. Of course they sense no urgency. Their lives are not in danger. I cannot help but notice an echo in what the president said about those in BLM. Yes, President Obama is a black man in the White House—but as Louis Farrakhan reminds us, we should never lose sight that it is still the WHITE house. That is, the Presidency in this country is an office invested in maintaining and acting out the norms of white supremacy.
For the past seven years, many Black folks have been less critical of President Obama because we finally had someone who looked like us in the country’s highest office. As valuable that imagery is, we cannot forget that, as our grandmothers said, all your skinfolk ain’t your kinfolk—meaning, people that look like us are still capable of perpetuating anti-Blackness. President Obama has lectured us on respectability for the last time. We must hold Black leaders to the standards they inspire. Oppressed people need more than rhetoric. They need policy. He spent the first two years in office trying to build bridges with those who maintain white supremacy and now he wants to lecture those engaged in a movement to that was formed under his watch. What oppressed people need is neither always convenient nor expressed according to the expectations of those who need to hear them. If we were politely asking for our needs to be met, we would die before we attracted the attention of those in power. In fact, many already have.
We aren’t asking President Barack Obama to hold a sign with the words Black Lives Matter—we don’t need the spectacle of support. We need actions that stem from support. He certainly should not spend the last months of his presidency lecturing those dying on how to die quietly. But, for many, seeing President Obama have moments of public blackness have been enough to appease them. That’s just not enough for us; not anymore. After all, it’s nice to hear Amazing Grace sung at memorial services, but we can get that at the church ‘round the corner.