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Should Obama Have a Black Agenda Is the Wrong Question
The Tavis Smiley/Al Sharpton media brawl, if nothing else, underscores the need for clarity and accountability-presidential and otherwise. However, the question framed solely as whether President Barack Obama should have a Black agenda, is the wrong question. More important is the president's responsibility to address and respond to Blacks' needs, and our responsibility to present to him, clear and convincing proposals and demands.
Clarity is essential; there is no universal definition of "A Black Agenda." Tavis Smiley says he is very concerned that national leaders who met with the president a month or so ago, are "singing a new song," i.e., that Obama does not need a Black agenda. Tavis asks, "Why shouldn't they make specific demands?", but doesn't define "Black agenda."
Al Sharpton is quoted in the mainstream press as saying, "The group's meeting with the president was not a 'race' meeting, nor a meeting on Black issues-it was, and will remain, a focus on the basic right of all people to be self-sustained and gainfully employed." If accurate, this buttresses Smiley's contention that the group (it included Sharpton, NAACP's Benjamin Jealous and Urban League's Marc Morial), conveyed support for Obama's, "A rising tide lifts all boats" philosophy by soft-pedaling the need for a discernible focus on Black concerns by the Obama administration.
(A blogger offered this provocative take: "Smiley cannot look at a real Black president in the eye and give him the benefit of the doubt.....Sharpton and other civil rights leaders are forced to do the dirty work on racial equality because our Black president has been terrorized into political silence on issues of race.") We'll see if Smiley's recent "Black Agenda Summit" in Chicago illuminates or further blurs the debate.
Dr. Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century says one of its major goals is to discuss issues of concern to Black people, no matter who is in the White House. In 2008, the Institute created a Presidential Accountability Commission, which will monitor how (Black) issues are addressed by the Obama Administration; its purpose is, "to institutionalize an important dimension of Black politics."
Historically, various agenda-building processes were started, beginning in the 19th Century. Arguably, the most prominent was the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, which Daniels describes as, "One of the most profound statements of Black interests and aspirations in the 20th Century." The Gary agenda was a landmark but laments that neither it nor similar efforts over the years were sustainable. He also notes that the mission statement of The Million Man March and political agendas developed for The Millions More Movement are, "admirable efforts to articulate Blacks' interests and aspirations," but none have had on-going follow-through.
Daniels asserts that what Black America needs are political systems and processes that are institutionalized, emphasizing that statements of principles have long been advanced by Black civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus. It seems what Blacks can agree to is less important than, preventing, "every individual ego from posturing so that we can present an agenda to the president." Without common ground and community mobilization, Smiley's Chicago Summit and any other such effort will simply be latter day laudable gatherings. Substantive Black political agendas must be forged collectively and presented by entities with broad support.
In a recent Los Angeles Sentinel column, "Reaffirming Our Right to Exist: A Transformative Black Agenda," Dr. Maulana Karenga provides a succinct analysis and current implications of systemic factors that, "question Black's existence, affirmation and agenda." He asserts ,"One of the greatest problems in the world is the power to define reality and make others accept it, even when it's to their disadvantage."..... "While we are taught and often feel compelled to praise others for the practice and preservation of their culture....we are the only people who are deemed and denounced as too much of themselves, too concerned with their culture, "too Black."
Karenga's analysis and perspective are relevant to the Black agenda discussion: There must be a clear understanding that any such effort must be forged from common history and common ground. Karenga: " ......(building such an agenda) "...must take place in a framework that respects our historical role as a moral and social vanguard in this country and the world."
Yes, we should insist that President Obama address our needs and demands, keeping in mind, however, that he will most likely do so if they emanate from a collective Black agenda.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail