In 1994, during the first democratic elections in South Africa, I joined other international observers as we witnessed the historic victory of the ANC. I’ll never forget how a woman from Soweto emphatically professed that she was going to the suburbs to claim her mansion now that apartheid was over and the ANC was in power. This poor woman seemed perplexed as everyone around her began laughing at her unrealistic expectations.
Today, in the United States as African-Americans continue to bear the brunt of socio-economic hardships, there are some who similarly have unviable expectations of our first Black president. But instead of innocent naivete as the root cause of their questioning, sadly, many of these individuals’ objections towards the president are based in a much more vain agenda, such as publicity.
Prior to President Barack Obama releasing his long-form birth certificate, polls indicated that some 40 percent of Republicans doubted his American citizenship status. When nearly half of the electorate on the right vilifies you by implying that you are not even one of us, how can we begin to expect the president to continuously address only the Black community and only issues affecting us? Do we really believe that if he made a major policy speech on the Black agenda, these same people on the right would somehow be swayed by our struggles and our concerns? Before we provide ammunition for his adversaries salivating at any opportunity to undermine his authority, we must maintain practical goals for our 44th president.
I will be the first one to say that there are very real, very troubling and very complex obstacles facing the Black community in the United States. From health care disparities to unequal access to education, to high incarceration rates and more than double the national average unemployment percentages in many areas, we as a whole have every right to question policy and government. The need for Obama to address these issues and more cannot be underscored, nor should it be. But what we cannot begin to do is blame Obama for the many institutional barriers that were in place long before his presidential aspirations were even a thought. We cannot deal with them in a way that unfairly targets him or our concerns. These issues must be undeniably dealt with-but they must be dealt with strategically.
My colleagues in the civil rights community and I focus on many of these dilemmas on a day-to-day basis. For example, last year we orchestrated a massive demonstration in Arizona against a draconian immigration bill. In the nation’s capital, tens of thousands marched with us as we held a “Reclaim the Dream” rally to commemorate Dr. King and counter Glenn Beck’s distortion of his legacy. And throughout the decades, we’ve successfully conducted countless protests against police brutality, unemployment, gun violence and more. It is absolutely fascinating, however, that the president’s most vocal critics at this juncture were not present with us during those rallies and were not in the trenches with the people. They want to assign the masses to do the tough work so that they may go to the halls of power themselves.
Early last year, leaders from the National Urban League, the NAACP and National Action Network (represented by myself) met with the president. Some weeks later, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) did the same, and this year, our commander-in-chief addressed National Action Network’s 20th anniversary gala awards dinner in New York. A few weeks following our convention, the president met again with the CBC. The message has been unanimous: We need more jobs, more opportunities and equality across the board.
Throughout my years in the civil rights struggle, I have had my conflicts and will continue to have them, but at the end of the day, I take solace in the fact that we have diligently fought to end police misconduct and discrimination in all facets of society, while pushing for an increase in diversity in the corporate and business world. And it’s a fight we will continue regardless of who is in the White House. But as we call attention to inequities, we must be careful in ensuring we are not impractical in our demands. And we must be equally as weary of those who will attack the president on anything and everything for their own self-gain.
It’s interesting that both the CBC and civil rights groups agreed on many of the same principles and much of the same agenda. Perhaps it’s because we were all in the trenches trying to resolve the problem, and not sell a book.