Over the past four years, many people in the Black community have criticized President Barack Obama for lacking what some call a “Black Agenda.” There are those who believed that the election of the country’s first African-American president would mean an unprecedented amount of attention paid to the plight and struggle of the Black community. For many, the celebration in November of 2008 that erupted in Black communities all over this country has turned into frustration because there are people who feel that the president hasn’t done enough for African-Americans since being elected to office.
The recent re-election of the president has not quieted the criticism, but has actually reignited it and increased the expectations of many African-Americans. The thought is that since Obama does not have to seek another re-election, maybe he will begin to put forward policy designed to specifically impact issues of great concern in the Black community.
Prior to the recent presidential elections, I had the opportunity to travel around the country with the Rev. Al Sharpton for the National Action Network’s “Voter Engagement Tour.” The tour was designed to galvanize and mobilize people in local communities around the issue of voter suppression. This tour was initiated because leading up to the elections, we witnessed a monumental attempt to suppress the vote of minorities in this country.
The tour was our attempt to bring awareness to the tactics that were being used by the Republican Party to shrink the voting pool. In every city we visited, we were overwhelmed by the response as people came together to rally and fight against rigid voter ID laws that were created with the intent to stifle the Black vote in particular and undermine the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In many of the cities we visited, in the midst of people mobilizing against voter suppression, I still heard echoes of lament by some who felt that the president had not done enough for the Black community. I did not necessarily agree with the criticism, but the frustration that I encountered was real and heartfelt.
This week, more than 60 civil rights, social justice, religious, business and community leaders convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss critical issues that impact the Black community.
Sharpton, who was one of the conveners of the meeting, said, “It was a historic gathering of over 60 leaders from civil rights, faith-based, academic, social and youth organizations to put together the framework of an agenda for African-Americans to present before the president and the Congress for the next four years. We must move beyond rhetoric to create results and from attacks to action.”
In a written statement, the leaders desired that there be a sense of urgency in addressing the plight of the African-American community. They identified several markers of this plight, including the fact that African-Americans have benefited least from the economic recovery, and that the Great Depression disproportionately battered the African-American community.
They went on to write, “Unemployment remains unacceptably high; income inequality and the ever-widening wealth gap threaten to relegate the Black community to perpetual underclass status.” They further emphasized that those who wish to curtail career preparation and investment education further hinder the prospects of upward mobility for Black youth.
I wholeheartedly understand the need to develop a national agenda to deal with the myriad of issues that confront the Black community, but I also know that if there is no transfer of an agenda to the local level, then a national agenda is established in vain. Maybe the leaders that gathered in Washington should lead a tour, much like the Voter Engagement Tour, around the country to mobilize local leaders to develop and implement strategies that alleviate the plight of many of our most traumatized communities. Local leadership must be empowered, but also held accountable because the time for rhetoric and politically expedient policies is over.
Local religious, civic, business and community leaders must come together, put reckless egos and personal agendas aside, and begin the hard work of transformation. It is one thing to desire the president to develop policy; it is another thing for individuals to have the fortitude to change their neighborhood.