Beyond Obama and the Democrats, if there is to be an independent force to fight for progressive change, the question is, what role will people of African descent, Black people, play in the process? This is particularly crucial since the vast majority of African Americans are proud of the fact that America finally has a Black President. Indeed, there are some within the Black community who embrace the notion that the election of Barack Obama marks the advent of a “post racial society.” Others do not go that far but raise concerns about the relevance of a “Black Agenda” with a Black President in office; that is to say, should Blacks pressure a Black President to openly address Black issues. Far from accepting the notion of a post-racial society, there is also substantial sentiment in the Black community that because racism is still a factor in this country, pressing Obama to address Black issues will solidify opposition to his presidency. Then there are those who are simply content to bask in the psycho-cultural achievement of having a Black family in the White House.
Recently variations of these positions have provoked a fierce debate among noted African American public intellectuals, talk show hosts and political activists like Cornel West, Rev. Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, Tom Joyner and Boyce Watkins. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have consistently argued that, like any other President, Obama must be called upon to address Black issues and concerns. Their critiques of Obama have sometimes been scathing and personal, with Cornel West suggesting that President Obama is not comfortable around Black men. Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been granted considerable access to the White House, has deftly responded that Obama is not the President of Black America, but President of all Americans. Therefore, he should not bear the burden of advocating for Black issues. Boyce Watkins correctly took Professor West to task for personalizing his critique but seems to agree that Obama should address Black issues. Tom Joyner was so incensed by Tavis Smiley’s demands on Obama that he essentially labeled him disloyal and banned him from ever appearing on the Morning Show again. The role of a Black Agenda and the relevance of Black politics in the age of Obama is a hotly contested topic in Black America, as well it should be.
Much of my life’s work as a social and political activist has been devoted to shaping the theory and practice of Black politics as a tool in the Black Freedom Struggle. Nothing more than the National Black Political Convention in Gary in 1972 has influenced my view of the role of Black politics in achieving the liberation of African Americans and oppressed people in this country. The Preamble to the National Black Agenda adopted at the Convention is entitled – The Gary Declaration: Black Politics at the Crossroads. It is a profound document which provided an incisive analysis of the conditions confronting Black America and the vision and mission of Black politics in achieving liberation. After chronicling the myriad maladies afflicting Black people, the Declaration offered the following analysis: “The crises we face as Black people are the crises of the entire society. They go deep, to the very bones and marrow, to the essential nature of America’s economic, political, and cultural systems. They are the natural end-products of a society built on the twin foundations of white racism and white capitalism.”
The unambiguous assessment was that there are basic flaws in the American political economy which were barriers to Black freedom. In fact the Declaration states that “this system does not really work in favor of the humanity of anyone in America.” Then the Declaration asserts that Blacks cannot depend on either major political party to be the primary arbiter of our liberation: “Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant.” Having laid out an analysis of the Black condition and the unreliability of the major parties in promoting Black interests, the document calls for a “new Black politics” to advance the interests and aspirations of Africans in America: “… The Black Politics of Gary must accept major responsibility for creating both the atmosphere and the program for fundamental, far-ranging change in America…It is the challenge to consolidate and organize our own Black role as the vanguard in the struggle for a new society.”
As noted, the Declaration was the preface, the preamble for the Black Agenda which was adopted by the delegates. It concluded: “We move recognizing that no one else is going to represent our interest but ourselves. The society we seek cannot come unless Black people organize to advance its coming. We lift up a Black Agenda recognizing that white America moves toward the abyss created by its own racist arrogance, misplaced priorities, rampant materialism, and ethical bankruptcy. Therefore, we are certain the Agenda we now press for in Gary is not only for the future of Black humanity, but is probably the only way the rest of America can save itself from the harvest of its criminal past.” What a powerful document and awesome charge for Africans in America to shoulder! It has served as my “political Bible” for nearly four decades.
I cite these passages from the Gary Declaration because nearly 40 years after the adoption of the National Black Agenda, the analysis and charge offered are relevant to the raging debate about how to relate to America’s first African American President, as well as the question of the role Blacks should play in forging an independent force for change in this period. Just as America has a generation that has lost touch with the contributions and legacy of the liberal/progressive movement, Black America has a generation that has little or no knowledge of contribution and legacy of the Gary Black Political Convention to the evolution and development of Black politics. The lesson of Gary was/is that an oppressed people must have a clear assessment of their condition and an analysis of the barriers blocking the path to liberation. This clarity must form the foundation for an Agenda that the oppressed group must advocate for, utilizing whatever avenues available to shatter the shackles of bondage; a struggle that must ultimately involve striving to dismantle oppressive structures, institutions and systems if total liberation is to be achieved. The Gary Declaration charged Black people with advancing a politics of social transformation in the quest to build a new society.
Today vast numbers of Blacks in America’s “dark ghettos” live in a virtual “State of Emergency,” mired in obscene levels of unemployment/joblessness, subsisting in deteriorating neighborhoods full of sub-standard housing, plagued by the scourge of drugs, an illicit economy, crime, violence, fratricide and mass incarceration. And, we have just witnessed the ugly underbelly of America’s capitalist political-economy, as the reckless behavior of the bandits on Wall Street plunged the economy into a Great Recession, devastating the lives of millions of working people, the middle class and people of color minorities. It is certainly laudable that racial attitudes have changed to the degree that enough White Americans voted for Barack Obama to contribute to his election as President. However, his ascension to the White House has not fundamentally changed the plight of millions of Blacks imprisoned in America’s dark ghettos or transformed the structures and institutions of capital and finance which can produce misery and pain for masses of Americans. Setting aside the unnecessary personal nature of his critiques, Cornel West is absolutely correct to insist that African Americans have the right and obligation to monitor the policy initiatives and outcomes of the Obama presidency and any administration, to promote and protect the interests and aspirations of Black people. As former Congressman Walter Fauntroy constantly reminds us, politics is not merely about cosmetics and symbols. It is about engaging the electoral process to extract human and material resources to meet the needs of one’s constituency. This is exactly why the Institute of the Black World 21st Century established the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission as a body to institutionalize the process of monitoring presidential administrations as it relates to Black interests.
Substance trumps symbolism especially when huge sectors of Black America are in a State of Emergency. Hence, beyond the potential historical significance of the moment, Blacks should have marched on ballot boxes in 2008 with the expectation that Barack Obama and the Democrats would reward our support by advancing the interests of workers, the middle class and the poor, as well as the needs/concerns of Black people! Otherwise, what’s the point of participating in the electoral political process? President Obama has initiated policies like Health Care Reform, increasing Pell Grants and a Stimulus Bill on the theory that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” He has also appointed Justices to the Supreme Court who will block a complete takeover of the highest Court in the land by conservatives. Moreover, he increased funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and directed Attorney General Eric Holder to strengthen enforcement of civil rights and anti-discrimination statutes and regulations.
Obama is to be commended for these accomplishments, and he certainly has proven to be better than what we might have expected from a McCain presidency. But, it is also fair to say that he has failed to provide bold leadership on a range of issues affecting working people, the middle class and the poor, frequently pre-maturely compromising with the conservatives in the name of bi-partisanship. Equally important, from the perspective of a Black Agenda, he has failed to unveil a visible urban policy and stubbornly refused to develop a targeted jobs program to combat chronic Depression levels of joblessness in the Black community. Under the leadership of Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver, the Congressional Black Caucus recently held a press conference urging the President to directly address the disproportionate joblessness in Black communities. Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League and other civil rights/human rights leaders have consistently pressed Obama on the same issue. Thus far the President has failed to respond. This is a legitimate source of concern and frustration among many Black leaders and commentators. However, this does not mean Blacks will abandon the President in the 2012 election.
President Obama is not unique in his reluctance to address Black issues. In the face of the White backlash against progress in the 60s and the rise to prominence of conservatives, Blacks have complained about the performance of Democrat and Republican Presidents as it relates to a Black Agenda. But, expectations have been higher for the Democrats since Blacks have pragmatically delivered their votes to the Party by huge majorities since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Democrats have correctly been viewed as marginally better than the Republicans on issues that matter most to Blacks. However, the performance of President William Jefferson Clinton is illustrative of the reluctance of Democrats to specifically address Black issues. For all of the talk about Bill Clinton as the “first Black President,” he failed to advance an urban policy to ameliorate the conditions in urban inner-city areas. Though he did convene a “national conversation on race,” bowing to the tenor of the times, he avoided advocating race based remedies to address the desperate plight of Blacks in America’s inner-cities. The best that could be said of Clinton is that he appointed a number of Blacks to high level positions, he was adept at relating to Blacks personally and symbolically and his “centrist” policies were preferable to the reactionary agenda of the radical right. Hence Clinton was seen as the dam blocking a potential flood by the radical right. Perennially caught in this political bind, the cold reality is that in recent years Black voters have never been rewarded by the Democrats in proportion to our support for the Party at the ballot box or in proportion to our needs. Therefore, Blacks have every reason to play a leading role in forging an independent, progressive force for change beyond the Democrats — a force dedicated to educating and motivating a majority of the electorate to adopt and act on a liberal/progressive vision of America.
While there have always been different political tendencies among Africans in America, there is little doubt that what Professor Cornel West calls the radical democratic tradition of liberal/left/progressive thought and action has been a dominant force driving the struggle for liberation of Blacks and oppressed people. Even Black Republicans in the era of the 60’s were liberals deeply concerned about advancing a Black Agenda of “freedom and justice for all.” Jackie Robinson was a Rockefeller Republican. Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts was a liberal, and Art Fletcher, Advisor to President Nixon, was the architect of the Philadelphia Plan which became the blueprint for affirmative action. These Republicans were a far cry from the current crop of Black conservatives whose claim to fame is their view that race does not matter; Black conservatives who have volunteered or been persuaded to co-sign what is an essentially an anti-Black, anti-labor, anti-gender equality, anti-gay and lesbian, anti-environment, pro-corporate agenda. But, Black conservatives are a miniscule minority. The liberal/progressive political tendency is still the dominant/mainstream tendency in Black America. As a case in point, since its inception, the Congressional Black Caucus has often been referred to as the “conscience of the Congress!”
It is this liberal/progressive tendency in the Black Freedom Struggle that Africans in America must now fully embrace and expand as we seek to assume our rightful place in the forefront of the fight for a more just and humane society as envisioned in the Gary Declaration. This is why the National Rainbow Coalition was so incredibly important. It grew out of the Black Freedom Struggle and placed the interests, aspirations and concerns of Blacks and other people of color at the center of the “economic common ground agenda” articulated as the framework for a new America. This concept of the centrality of the issues and leadership of Blacks and people of color is critically important in terms of forging a formidable independent force for change because historically White liberals/progressives have often sought to downplay issues of race, ethnicity and culture as detrimental to building bonds of working class unity. Or, there has been an inability to include Blacks and people of color in a manner that would avoid liberal/left progressive formations being overwhelmingly White in composition. Because of its origins, that was never a problem with the Rainbow Coalition.
The Gary Declaration provided the rationale for the centrality of Black leadership in the struggle for a new society: “That responsibility is ours because it is our people who are most deeply hurt and ravished by the present systems of society.” If Blacks and people of color are to play a leading role in the Progressive National Convention and the creation of an independent liberal/progressive mechanism beyond Obama and the Democrats, this issue must be firmly addressed. Formulas must be devised to structurally ensure the centrality of the agendas and leadership of Blacks and people of color. There is a precedent for this in the little known Progressive National Convention organized by the National Independent Politics Network in 1992 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. There may be other historical precedents as well. No matter the source, the vision, vitality and longevity of a new independent progressive force for change will be best served if it has a “Rainbow” composition and character.
As Africans in America prepare for the 2012 elections, we must be clear that President Barack Hussein Obama is the firewall thwarting the virus of radical conservatism from decisively turning back the clock on Black progress and the march toward a more perfect union by the progressive forces for change. Therefore, while we offer constructive critiques of his performance on issues of vital concern to Blacks and other similarly situated constituencies, it is in our best interest to turn back the conservative tide by supporting Obama’s reelection for President. But, we must be equally clear that, left to their own devices, Obama and the Democrats have retreated from the cutting edge of advancing a politics of social transformation to create a far more just and humane society than we have at present. Accordingly, to be true to the dominant radical liberal/progressive tradition that has “brought us thus far on the way,” it is imperative that we play a leading role in the fight for a new society. The Gary Declaration put it this way: “The challenge is to transform ourselves from favor-seeking vassals and loud talking ‘militant’ pawns … to take up the role that the organized masses of our people have always attempted to play since we came to these shores: That of harbingers of true justice, humanity, leaders in the struggle for liberation.” We dare not betray that legacy. Beyond Obama and the Democrats, let us prepare to assume our role in galvanizing an independent liberal/progressive force for “fundamental, far-ranging change” in this nation!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected].