I had the honor last week of attending a historic gathering of African-American leaders in Washington devoted to address the "state of black America." More than 60 of America's leading civil rights and community leaders gathered to discuss key issues in the black community as the nation prepares for President Obama's second term.
The meeting was convened by Marc H. Morial, president of National Urban League, Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, NAACP national president and Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, among others.
The meeting was convened in part to answer the questions that many African-Americans have asked since Election Day: What should a "black agenda" look like in Obama's second term? Many civil rights leaders have said that because African-Americans turned out in historic numbers and overwhelmingly voted for Obama, he should pay special attention to the community's concerns, as he did for other constituencies during his first four years.
"We are taking this from rhetoric to results from people saying that we need an agenda to us sitting down and collectively coming up with one," Sharpton said to the guests.
"There are those left teetering on the precipice of financial ruin and there are some who would ask working, low and middle class Americans to give more," said Morial. "We... urge all leaders involved in these negotiations to move toward a fair and rational approach that preserves the safety nets so crucial to struggling families including Medicaid, Medicare, social security, and support for investments in education, innovation, jobs and infrastructure that will be necessary for real and meaningful recovery."
The leaders said that the administration should promote policies that achieved economic parity for African-Americans, equality in educational opportunity, protect and defend voting rights and develop policies that eliminating healthcare disparities, among others.
"The plight of the African-American community underscores the urgency of our demand," the leaders said in a written statement. "The African-American community was disproportionately battered by the Great Recession, and has benefited the least from the fragile economy recovery. Unemployment remains unacceptably high; income inequality and the ever-widening wealth gap threaten to relegate the black community to perpetual underclass status. Those who wish to curtail investment education and career preparation further dim the prospects for upward mobility for our young people."
All of this sounds great -- in theory. And yes it is important to have an agenda. But one thing is missing: a realistic strategy to combat a reluctant GOP-led House of Representatives. Even in talks regarding the "fiscal cliff" Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), has made it crystal clear that he will not cooperate with President Obama. So can we believe that the lofty policy goals for black America have a chance as well?
For example: The Republicans for weeks have called the president's position on fixing America's fiscal woes as a "non starter" or the disrespectful "their La-La-Land offer" when referring to the White House plan. It appears they plan to duplicate the same level of resistance they gave in the first term.
Meanwhile, the GOP provided a counter proposal which offers $2.2 trillion in debt reduction, increases Medicare eligibility age, and puts social security cuts on the table. They also proposed to lower tax rates for the "1 percent." I don't know if Speaker Boehner and the GOP simply didn't get the memo that Mitt Romney didn't actually win the election, but this approach is the opposite of the "black agenda" laid out by Sharpton, Morial and others.
And the fact that public opinion appears to be on the president's side isn't helping matters. According to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 82 percent of Americans oppose reducing social security benefits, 67 percent oppose raising Medicare eligibility age and 60 percent support raising taxes on the wealthy.
This hints at the fact that the majority of Americans do not agree with what Boehner is proposing.
It's not just African-Americans who the GOP have it out for, by the looks of this counter proposal and their continuous rhetoric, they want to throw the entire middle class, the elderly, women, college students, all minorities, and the rest of the 99 percent right off the "fiscal cliff"
We have all identified the bad guy and it's not President Obama.
(Important to note that noticeably absent in this meeting was Dr. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley.)
But make no mistake this was no "Team Obama" cheering section meeting. They were extremely critical while at the same time cognizant of the obstacles (such as Congress and Speaker Boehner) that the president has had to deal with. And despite those obstacles what he has been able to accomplish. (Job creation, health care reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, creating more private sector jobs in 2010 alone then the entire Bush years, Hire Act, immigration reform etc., etc.).
It wasn't about simple criticism for the sake of criticizing. It was about how to bring about real change that is tangible to the community; anyone can simply criticize and say that President Obama isn't doing enough.
The question I had for the over 60 civil rights leaders after I personally witnessed them lay the foundation for a specific "black agenda," was how do we defeat the opposition when it appears as though they would rather see President Obama fail then to see America succeed? I posed this to the group as they were addressing the media and this is how Marc Morial responded to my direct question:
The president is going to continue to face resistance from many forces in this country. What we're going to do is re vamp our efforts to push in a very unified and forceful way. We should not be in any way confused that much of the resistance he faced is going to try to resurrect itself. But let's be candid, election results matter the efforts to resist the president while they may have stopped The American Jobs Act and a number of other things from taking place, they didn't prevent his re-election. And I think it is very important that with every new pesidential term, there is the opportunity for a new start. We want to be there at the very beginning saying that while the economy is beginning to recover, the African-American community and urban communities are still left far behind. And it is important to recognize that it is going to take efforts of a strong and focused and yes targeted to be able to address that.
I asked Michael Eric Dyson after if he could expound on my question and this was his answer:
How do you get across the hurdle of someone like Speaker Boehner who wants to do everything in his power to make sure the president does not succeed? We must leverage the power of our democratic witness as ordinary citizens by flooding our Congress people's offices with phone calls, emails, and social media posts. We must let them feel our outrage and our disagreement with their willingness to hold the country hostage to their narrow beliefs and rigid ideologies. We must support President Obama's efforts to resist Republican plans and policies that transfer more resources to the wealthy while taking money from the middle class, working class, working poor and the abject poor. We must encourage the president to expend the significant capital he generated in the last election on the masses of Americans -- especially African-Americans, Latinos, young folk and women -- who stood by him and were largely responsible for his reelection. What Republicans call social entitlements -- with little sense of irony or contradiction, since they don't mind distributing all sorts of corporate welfare to their wealthy cronies -- are in fact strong threads of the social safety net that the masses helped weave with their labor and taxes. We must win the intellectual, rhetorical and political battle by pressing the case on all fronts to the American public.
This meeting was an excellent start, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. I hope for the sake of African-Americans and all minorities, teachers, single mothers working two jobs to make ends meet, firemen, construction workers, receptionists, farmers, Joe the plumbers, high school coaches, laid off employees, college students and the rest of the 99 percent, their efforts prove to be effective.
Photo credit: Kendall Crabtree
A condensed version of this article was originally posted in the Washington Post.