A recent headline blared out an interesting take on a set of speeches by Barack Obama, "Obama criticizes Black America" and I said to myself, 'Hmmmmm, seems like I have heard that song before.'
I had. I attended the Conference of the National Rainbow Coalition in January of 1992 when candidate Bill Clinton showed up. He proceeded to chew out popular Black rap singer, Sister Souljah. Sister Souljah had said the week before in an interview that since police were killing Blacks, perhaps there needed to be a week where Blacks killed the police. Clinton was nonplused that Black leaders hadn't called her on the carpet for that admittedly outrageous remark.
Well, it was later discovered that this was a dedicated strategy that was meant for White moderates, Reagan Democrats and others to prove that he was tough enough to handle Jesse Jackson and be tough on Blacks in the process.
After all, Barack Obama is running for president of the United States, not the moral arbiter of the Black community.
And rather than giving Blacks an empowering message, he seems to be talking through Blacks to someone else. He and his handlers should leave the preaching to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's minister, who does a much better job. Otherwise they could create the impression that this is a disingenuous dialogue that does not, in the end, empower the Black community by linking their aspirations to the person who will control the White House.
Of course we asked for it to some extent, because Black people are unique in America in that they conduct a public dialogue about their problems and invite everyone to give their view on an equal footing with their own. On the other hand, you seldom hear Whites commiserate about the people in jail, or the poor, or who has responsibility for these issues as culturally their own. The debilitating conditions of the White community, even though they are the majority, are very often discussed publicly using Blacks as a foil. So when issues of poverty, incarceration, female-headed households or others are discussed, even though there are more Whites saddled with these problems than Blacks, we are often the subject used to discuss them. Perhaps this is characteristic of a people without effective power to change their situation, but even though this is the discussion we have on a regular basis in Black barbershops, we should not legitimize this deflection as the way politicians come into our communities and join in a community discussion rather than to explain what they do if they had the power to make a difference.
As an example, Obama said that Blacks are disenfranchising themselves because they don't vote. This is not true. In the 2000 election cycle, the proportionate difference in the Black and White vote was virtually the same. That is to say, the difference in the proportion of the Black community and White community that registered was little more than 2 percent. And the difference in voting was little more than 3 percent. The difference rose somewhat in 2004. In fact, 1.3 million more Blacks voted between 2000 and 2004, achieving 56 percent of the group and providing further evidence that Blacks do, indeed, vote.
The point is that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others didn't use their platform in presidential politics to preach to us our about moral failings, they used it to lift us up and we should demand that from other candidates as well.
Ron Walters is the director, African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland — College Park.