African Americans: Ask What You Can Do For Self, Not What Obama Can Do For You

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[The View From Washington]

As Americans look toward the upcoming State of the Union Address, some are asking what President Obama should address for Black America.

Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote a very insightful piece entitled Three Things Obama Must Address for Black People.  In this piece Dr. Watkins correctly highlighted that the collective African American community and Obama administration has been too politically polite; too deferential regarding White sensitivity towards race.  President Obama must speak to economic inequality, disproportionate mass incarceration of African Americans, and education reform.

Professor Michael Eric Dyson recently gave President Obama a “C Minus” on Black issues.  Dyson says the President has failed to use his bully pulpit and could be more forceful in speaking directly to the issues of race in America.  President Obama, “has to find a register where he’s able to articulate his vision …find a bit more strength and backbone in asserting his direction…”

Watkins, Dyson, and others who are expressing similar sentiments are correct in their assessments, as far as they go.  One problem with their analysis is that they are expecting a politician to take positions on issues that he did not run on.  They fail to take into account as Dr. Ronald Walters highlights in his piece, "Barack Obama and the Politics of Blackness" that the Obama campaign emerged from the center of American politics, "and the structural requirements of fund raising and the interests projected by White voters.”  Walters contrasts President Obama with other Black presidential candidates who have not faced that problem or seeming contradiction because they, “emerged from the Black community at the margins of the American electorate.”

The questions should not be what should President Obama do for Black America but what will Black America do for itself politically and when?  How does Black America develop the political power, will, and leverage to implement substantive change?  Thereby, dictating an agenda instead of as Watkins writes, sitting “quietly on the sidelines, hoping that if we are silent enough, people won't realize that Obama is black like the rest of us.”

The success of the Civil Rights Movement was based upon organization and organizations that developed a clear mission and strategy.  The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955), Dockum Drug Store sit-in (1958), the March on Washington (1963), the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were a result of organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League, SCLC, SNCC, the Black Panthers, and others that organized, developed, and implemented strategies of direct action in the courts, the streets, and the legislature.  

As a result of these success and others, too many African Americans have become complacent.  As Dr. King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here, “many middle-class Negroes have forgotten their roots and are more concerned about “conspicuous consumption” than about the cause of justice.”  This focus on consumption has replaced the focus on developing permanent organizations that work together as units of power within the community.

As African Americans deal disproportionately with home foreclosures and housing discrimination, where are the Black tenant and homeowner organizations articulating demands and policy options for the Obama administration to consider?  As African Americans are disproportionately impacted by unemployment (9.4 percent nationally, 17 percent in the Black community) where are Black union organizers and Black business owners organizing for better wages, jobs, and training?  Again, Dr. King: “It was the mass-action movement that engendered the changes of the decade (not a president or individual), but the needs which created it are not yet satisfied.”  Those needs are still not satisfied.  We need organization and direct action now more than ever.

President Obama is an African American who has been elected president without permanent units of political and economic power managed and controlled by the Black community that are articulating an agenda and holding him accountable for its implementation. As far as the Black community is concerned, the cart was put before the horse.

As a result, President Obama is acting in a political vacuum as far as the Black community is concerned.  He is negotiating from a position of weakness not bargaining from a position of strength with recalcitrant and determined conservative interests with an agenda that is antithetical to our own.

President Obama says that he is seeking consensus.  Dr. King wrote: “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”  Dyson wants President Obama to, “find a bit more strength and backbone”.  He can’t find it; we must politically do for ourselves and force it on him.

Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer and Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “On With Leon,” and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  Go to or email:"

© 2011 InfoWave Communications, LLC.

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