Friday, March 5, 2010

Sharpton vs. Smiley: The State of the Black Disunion

"Fight! Fight!"

Those words are usually echoing throughout school playgrounds, when kids get into scrapes, over girlfriends or boyfriends; rumours, lies or false accusations. Although there are exceptions to the traditional rule these days, for the most part, it's pretty much true that the kids engaged in the altercation will be bosom buddies 'ere too long.

I think the dust up between civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton and media commentator Tavis Smiley falls in the same category. However, the long term consequences of this fight can more devastating as friends of the combatants choose up sides and satellite brawls break out beyond the control of all involved - including the two involved in the original fracas.

It apparently started when Tavis Smiley called into question the commitment of several black leaders to pressing President Obama to a more obvious commitment to a 'black agenda'.

I talk to very few black people - none really - who criticize Obama for not catering to black people. This in spite of the fact that African-Americans are impacted disproportionately by this economy, the turmoil in public education and health care. Most African-Americans get that Barack Obama is president of every citizen of the United States and he can't have a 'black agenda'. Politically it is, shall we say, not smart; practically, let's just say its equally not smart.

At the same time, there is what is considered by some, justifiable criticism on issues such as continuing the war, lack of aggressiveness on addressing issues related to poverty and jobs. Issues that, while addressing the needs of black people, also address the needs of everyone else.

Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous (President of the NAACP) , Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, had a principal concern for black people as the interest group they represent, but again regarding policies that ultimately have implications for all Americans.

Smiley is riding the hobby horse he's been riding since Obama announced his candidacy in 2007. Tavis Smiley hosted, up until recently an incredibly interesting summit on Black American issues, called 'The State of the Black Union'. It featured politicians, activists, academics, religious leaders and business leaders from across the broad spectrum of African-American life and culture (including Al Sharpton). When Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield, Missouri, he did it on the day Smiley had his TSOBU. Smiley has been a critic ever since.

While much of what Tavis Smiley says about the needs of Black Americans and the need to hold Barack Obama accountable as president, his views are nearly always tainted by the suspicion that he has carried 'a grudge' against the President.

There are many, white citizens who wouldn't care for Al Sharpton if he rescued them from a burning building, but he is right in his take on the impracticability of Barack Obama being seen promoting himself as the 'Black President'. The President shouldn't run from issues of race, but he can't run on it either. The one moment he expressed his frustrations as a black man, during the Henry Louis Gates affair, it was disastrous. Nearly every black male knew what he meant; nearly every black male knew he made a mistake. It is the luxury he had as a private citizen, and maybe as a state or national politician that he lost as soon as he ran for the highest office in the land. Its simply a reality that currently exists in our country.

Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton will eventually clear up this all too public disagreement. The problem is supporters choose sides. The fractures that are caused all too often result in ill feelings that make it difficult to work together toward an agenda on which we all must work.

As Dr. Dorothy Height, the 97 year old civil rights matriarch and chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women [who has known every president since FDR] said,“We have never sat down and said to the 43 other presidents: ‘How does it feel to be a Caucasian? How do you feel as a white president? Tell me what that means to you,’ ” Dr. Height said. “I am not one to think that he should do more for his people than for other people. I want him to be free to be himself.”

Again, Sharpton has it right, let's not confuse what Obama should be doing with what we as leaders, activists, local pols, parents, teachers, and business leaders should be doing. We should hold him accountable. We should challenge him when we think he hasn't gone far enough. We should speak up if he goes too far. Unlike so much of the opposition to Obama we've seen lately, it should be citizens engaging politically; not personal prejudice and animus that drives public debate.


Alan Bean said...

Good distinction, Gerald. Thank you.

Alan Bean

mosebell said...

Long before rigor has set-in many of us will have cemented our posture on this issue. I suspect all of us need to remember our roots and acculturation before we press for discerning answers and near-perfect behavior. "Let him who is without sin throw the first stone." It is not unusual that some folks use the success of others as stepping stones for jealousy and arrogance.