07/30/2012 01:40 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

What Black Intellectuals Should Say To President Obama

The 14.4 percent African-American unemployment rate raises a critical question: How do we create a political economy based on Matthew 25:31-36 -- "Whatever you do for the least of these you do unto me" -- a system that works urban and rural "least of these"? Three options appear: 1) the inside game of Melissa Harris Perry; 2) the outside game of Cornel West; or 3) the inside-outside game of Marian Wright Edelman. My sense is that we need a vigorous pursuit of option three. But first, a word about the first two options.

Doctors Perry and West are both gifted and prodigious intellectuals. Perry won an award for her classic "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought," received a joint appointment at Princeton University's Politics and African-American studies departments, and has delivered the DuBois lectures at Harvard University. West received a University Professorship at Harvard University, taught for a year at the University of Paris, and published the seminal work "Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity."

Perry is currently a Tulane political science professor and the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper project on Gender, Race and Politics. Of particular note, she hosts "The Melissa Harris Perry Show" on MSNBC. On #Nerdland, she prioritizes pay equity and reproductive justice, post-Katrina economic development and a deliberative democracy that prioritizes marginalized voices. Yay and amen to all of the above -- especially her decision to move to New Orleans and practice progressive politics in the South. Each weekend, she brings an exemplary mixture of empirical analysis and moral assessment to her viewers. I do, however, have one grievance: She has yet to substantively grapple with the brute, racialized facts of poverty in America. By substantively I mean focusing an entire episode on the matter. Perhaps I missed a special segment. At any rate, the establishmentarian politics of MSNBC may prohibit her from critiquing the Obama administration's policy outcomes on student loan rates, public housing and so on. Against this claim, Dr. Perry would likely argue, as she did on "The Ed Show," that the Obama administration has done a great deal for the "least of these" within our society. To substantiate her claim, she pointed to -- or could now point to -- two Supreme Court nominations, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Affordable Care Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and legislation that reduces criminal justice sentencing disparities. Dr. Perry's litany of presidential accomplishment raises an important point: President Obama, in terms of domestic policy that blesses the most disadvantaged within our society, has been the most successful commander-in-chief since President Johnson. The problem is that our nation withdrew much of its public investment from low-income communities after Johnson' administration. Dr. Perry effectively deploys the liberal tradition of American-American politics, but her failure to grapple substantively with poverty suggests that she is playing an inside game -- and maneuvering within the corridors of powers has its limits.

Cornel West, by contrast, is playing an outside game. After 65 campaign stops for then Sen. Obama, Brother West now expresses public discontent with President Obama's policies. He exhibits a special disdain for the administration's Clintonian economic policy advisors. On both of these fronts, Cornel West makes important points. Nevertheless, his idiosyncrasies -- and questionable claims about race -- have diluted the potency of his Matthew 25 critique of the Obama presidency. From a Matthew 25 metric, Obama's administration has been both stellar and subpar. His pre-election immigration policy was draconian; his election-year policy is slightly less draconian. The White House Office of Urban Policy -- Obama's signature metropolitan effort -- has accomplished little. The U.S. Treasury bailed out Wall Street and sold out homeowners on the Martin Luther King Drives and Oscar Romero Lanes of America. The president's team threw Van Jones, its green jobs czar, to the wolves. Most bewildering of all, the White House Office poorly pitched its anti-poverty wins -- the new healthcare law and the Sustainable Communities program. Since "Race Matters" catapulted him into fame, Brother West has prophesied deliverance with and for the least of these from administration to administration. Nevertheless, he is playing an outside game. To paraphrase Michael Walzer, he lacks the standing needed to bring "critical force" to his commentary. He rightly laments that we live in an oligarchy run by plutocratic elites. The problem is that his undisciplined Truthdig interview has liberated -- and commended him -- to speak before an audience of one.

Are we forced to choose between an inside-game theory of change and an outside-game theory of change? Perhaps. Debt repayment or other life circumstances may force our hand. But I suspect there is a third option for most of us. Marian Wright Edelman, the executive director of the Children's Defense Fund, exemplifies an inside game-outside game approach to social change. An insider's insider, Ms. Edelman is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, who planned the Poor People's March in 1968. She's also an outsider -- deploying pressure politics and delivering jeremiads of the highest order to public housing occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Following in her footsteps, black intellectuals should mobilize the marginalized and speak truth to presidential power. If black intellectuals -- clergy, educators, lawyers and artists -- commit to grassroots organizing and social criticism that is deconstructive and reconstructive, we can create a progressive political economy that forces a second-term President Obama govern on behalf of "the least of these."