In American politics, it's often not what you say but who you are that matters most, and no one better exemplifies this tradition than Barack Obama. His background and perhaps moreso his foreground -- that which we see when we look at Obama -- has been an endless source of curiosity and opportunity across the range of the American political spectrum. For the black community in particular, Obama's identity and politics have been an enigma. For many, the overriding question, given the nation's horrific legacy of slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, and continuing racial disparities, is what will President Obama do to help his community?
The debate -- having started well before he became president -- is not only heating up but taking on a highly personal tone. Princeton professor of African American studies Cornel West has led the pack with personalizing the issue in framing his critique of what Obama means for the black community. Professor West is followed not too far behind by black media kingpin Tavis Smiley. Both men have publicly declared themselves wounded by Obama's affronts to their wish of being included in the inner circle of the first black presidency. Both men have morphed what appears to be their personal ambitions into the larger narrative regarding the struggle for the betterment of the black community.
Having not only bemoaned Obama's failure to essentially be his friend (friends call friends back when they leave a message), West has now taken the slight to the next level by calling Obama names. President Obama is "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats," West contends. He even goes after Obama's mother for being white.
But many seasoned activists and certainly the overwhelming majority of African Americans say that the strategy is wrong -- as ad hominem approaches usually are -- and the real issues are being obscured by the playground squabbles making the headlines. There is a real and urgent need to shift the debate on Obama's relationship with the black community from private individuals' issues and will-I-or-won't-I half-heartedness about broaching the topic into an actual nuanced strategy that negotiates the fine line between pandering to extremist views and advancing the needs of a black community that is on so many levels seeing its worst days in generations.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, who has become a leading figure in Obama's black community outreach strategy, has strongly condemned black criticism of Obama, instead arguing for an insider strategy that negotiates with the administration. Sharpton's somewhat hands-off approach signals a real fear that reiterating Obama's black status will hurt his chances of re-election amongst whites and potentially open the door for a far more reactionary conservative candidate to win.
As joblessness continues to rise -- above 16.5% among blacks, as opposed to 8% amongst whites -- housing foreclosures devastate black families, and criminal justice practices continue to disintegrate black family structures and prosperity, black America is openly struggling against a potentially historic social and economic collapse during the very time that the first black president is in office. There seems to be little doubt, at least as Obama's first term comes to an end, that African Americans will have fared worse than when he came into office. For Obama's opponents, black and otherwise, that data will be the central theme for judging his administration.
But to what degree is expanding black immiseration Obama's fault? Clearly, Obama carries some of the blame, particularly his failure to use the office as a bully pit for challenging the nation to resolve the harmful racial disparities that exist. Yet, in a political system of complex and vexing checks and balances, realpolitik also limits the president's ability to change political directions. These facts, though too often buried in the back pages, fortunately have not been lost on some longstanding leaders in the community.
The rising voice of a middle ground is signaling some hope. Black leaders like Harry Belafonte, a Hollywood star whose history of progressive activism in the black community goes back to the early days of the civil rights movement, have proclaimed a more constructive and productive approach to Obama's relations with the black community and its needs. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Belafonte stated that it is in Obama's interest to be pushed into addressing black policy and political priorities. This can be accomplished by a multi-pronged strategy.
If Obama advances legislation that is desperately needed by a wide range of Americans, the needs of blacks can also be addressed without risking alienation of the dominant power structure. Joblessness is a key area. Unemployment rates among blacks haven't been this bad since the Great Depression. If Obama presses toward targeted job reform legislation, he will not only have addressed the foremost needs of millions of working class and jobless Americans, he will have taken a massive step toward helping the black community in particular.
At the same time, the administration and Congressional progressives should also push for targeted policies that specifically address issues that will not be met by a generalized approach. Rural communities, for example, have different needs than urban ones. In that sense, low-skilled, low-educated African American males have different employability concerns than semi-skilled, low-educated white females.
Attention to poverty and working class needs that also addresses the interests of marginalized racial communities has proven to be a successful model for other politicians in the past and not just in the United States. Former president Lula Ignacio da Silva of Brazil lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty with one swipe of his Bolsa Familia (Family Stipend) legislation. Brazil, like the United States, is a racially diverse and ethnically mixed population but targeted legislation like the Bolsa Familia worked wonders toward satisfying an urgent and primary need of a massive segment of the population while also carefully tending to the needs, in part, of black Brazilians who could have been lost in the shuffle of reform and stagnation once again.
Belafonte and his cohorts believe that the black community can not only advance its needs but advance Obama's presidency and re-election by steering Obama on track toward policies that are desperately overdue for the long suffering working and lower classes of America.
In other words, make Obama the kind of president he states he wants to be.
What is needed is not name-calling, agonized resentments, and tantrums but a mass mobilization toward that kind of policy change -- something former community organizer Obama knows all too well.
Clarence Lusane, Ph.D., is the program director/associate professor of comparative and regional studies in the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of many books, including The Black History of the White House, published earlier in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.
Shirin Sadeghi is Host of New America Now radio in San Francisco and is a former producer and reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera. She is a featured commentator on the Huffington Post and Pakistan's national daily newspaper, Pakistan Today and has a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies. Follow her on Twitter: ShirinSadeghi