A few months ago, a white friend of mine sent me the following YouTube link, with a subject line that simply read, “What do you think about this?:
In it, Michael Eric Dyson goes on a rhetorical tangent, at a 2010 Tavis Smiley-hosted roundtable discussion, about how much he loves President Obama culturally, but not necessarily politically. At the height of his rant, he goes as far as to say that in a Moses-Pharaoh analogy, Obama wouldn’t be the great liberator, leading his people away from oppression. He’d be the one holding them captive in the first place.
I didn’t know what to tell my friend, except to say that I can’t get into Dyson, period, and so his views on how president is failing black folks are outside my sphere of interest. It’s strange to be placed in a position where I’m asked to react to certain racial opinions because I’m black and therefore must have some stake in or strong response to the issue at hand. That wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have, so I refrained from further comment.
But Dyson’s ideas agitated me. They agitated me in ways I couldn’t articulate. I didn’t like how they were delivered, with the cadence of a preacher confident of his congregation’s accord. I didn’t like the crowd’s cosigned cheers or the enthusiastic nods of agreement he got from a few other pundits who’d joined him at the table (or, in Cornel West’s case, enthusiastic over-the-head arm-waving, like Dyson just scored a game-winning touchdown). But I especially didn’t like the accusation that Obama had done nothing for African Americans since taking office, while going out of his way to address every other minority group’s concerns.
“At the end of the day,” Dyson quips insultingly, “he’s Jackie Robinson. I’m waiting for Willie Mays to come….”
Good luck with that.
Fast forward to this Sunday, when Jonathan Capehart penned his insightful Washington Post op-ed, “Stop waiting for and start paying attention to our first black president,” in which he dismantles exactly the kinds of ideas Dyson set forth in his rant. Capehart’s article was in response to a piece published two days earlier titled, “Still waiting for our first black president.” In it, writer Fredrick Harris asserts:
Obama’s defenders have repeatedly said he must be a president for all Americans, not just African Americans, and Obama himself has made similar statements. But this argument is disingenuous. When other important constituencies ask the president to support their policy initiatives — say, Jewish groups on Middle East matters, or the LGBT community on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality, or women’s groups on reproductive rights — can you imagine him responding that he can’t address their particular interests because, as president, he has to be concerned with all people?
So on racial inequality, why do black voters have to take a back seat?
Well, since we’re discussing seats, here’s where Capehart suggests that Mr. Harris have one:
By searching for marquis moments, Harris and others appear not to care about the myriad actions Obama has undertaken that affect the lives of all Americans, yes, but also of African Americans more directly. And I certainly don’t advocate for Obama to burst into the East Room clad in Kente cloth and brandishing a definable “black agenda”or whatever else so many blacks seem to want from him to prove that he cares.
Someone who started his career on the south side of Chicago, whose wife is also from Chicago and who also has two young black daughters, doesn’t wake up one day and say, I don’t care about African Americans. That’s why it bothers me to no end that those who are “still waiting for our first black president” seem unwilling to pay attention to what the first black president is actually doing.
Capehart earlier states that Obama has been addressing issues of concerns to African Americans all along. He just hasn’t been name-dropping his efforts to court the black vote (which, by and large, he already has). Both writers’ essays are worth reading in their entirety. Once you do, come back to Clutch and weigh in.
What do you think? Do Dyson, Harris, and other Obama detractors have a point? Or should the examples of action Capehart provides be enough to end their accusations?