The 2008 election of Barack Obama as president of the United States clearly represented another major step forward in the long struggle of African-Americans for full equality.
Given that Obama received more than 97 percent of the Black vote, and that the Bush administration’s policies were often hostile or indifferent to the Black community, African-Americans had every right to expect that the new president would substantively address their concerns. Therefore, it is most ironic that, as the Black community’s concerns continue to be largely taken for granted by the administration, those groups who did not vote for him have used protest, media campaigns and the ballot box to compel Obama to deal with their concerns.
As has been well documented, Obama inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then as now, due to America’s history of racial and economic inequality, the Black community suffered disproportionately. But unlike the period of the 1930s and ’40s when Black leaders like Ida B. Wells and A. Philip Randolph pushed presidents to address the economic and social conditions facing the Black community, current Black leaders have been largely reluctant to publicly demand that Obama forcefully address the depression-like conditions facing many Black communities across the country. Why?
Despite record-high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and an unprecedented numbers of foreclosures, Black leadership has offered a variety of reasons for their silence. They argue that challenging Obama would risk embarrassing the first Black president or, worse, provide fodder for the right wing, which seeks to make him a one-term president. Moreover, these leaders also contend that criticizing the president would have a negative impact on the youth who were inspired by his historic election.
These explanations all ring hollow and in many ways betray the rich legacy of Black leadership that includes Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer–all of whose voices became the moral conscience of America, reminding the country of the contradiction between its professed commitment to equality and the racist treatment of African-Americans. These leaders, who operated under much more difficult circumstances and, at times, great personal risk, led protests, threatened marches or publicly criticized sitting presidents on behalf of racial justice.
In today’s political climate, the right wing attacks on Obama by the Tea Party and others have clearly resulted in the Black community’s closing ranks to support the president even when they may disagree with his policies. On the one hand, this is not surprising, given America’s long history of racial inequality; but on the other hand this support has resulted in a situation where the Black community finds itself uncritically supporting the president without raising important questions about his policies in relation to ongoing wars, tax cuts for the wealthy, cuts in government programs, abuses in the criminal justice system or high rates of Black poverty.
To be sure, Obama was clearly the superior choice in the last presidential campaign. But, for the first time in our history, Black leaders find themselves unprepared to deal with a president who is also considered a Black leader. Obama’s presidency continues to be a great source of pride as well as a tribute to the struggles of our ancestors.
Nonetheless, Black leadership can support this historic presidency while also forcefully advocating for the needs of their constituents. Regardless of who occupies the White House, current Black leadership must uphold the long tradition of challenging those in power to make sure that the struggle for racial justice never be compromised on the basis of symbolism, racial loyalty or access to those in power. Our youth needs to see that, regardless of position, everyone can be held accountable.
Dr. Anthony P. Browne is a professor in the department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latin studies at Hunter College.