Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Uncomfortable, Engaging and Enlightening

Sunday afternoon, I watched an extremely uncomfortable and yet engaging heated exchange between two African-American icons: Rev. Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornell West. While I've never met Sharpton, I have met Cornell West on a couple of occasions. I respect his opinion and I stand in awe of his intellect. I think Sharpton has grown as a leader and has a much more mature understanding of his role as an interpreter of issues that face our country. No you neither have to agree with him, or like him. But if you don't cherry pick your way through quotations and listen to what he says, he makes more sense than a lot of people are willing to admit.

Back to Sunday...

The exchange between Sharpton and West on the 'A Stronger America: the Black Agenda' an MSNBC special, came as they critiqued/criticized President Barack Obama's leadership. If you've never heard them express those views, the upshot, from Rev. Sharpton's view, is that it's unreasonable to expect Barack Obama to be 'the Black President'. While he should have sympathy for and enact policies that improve the lot of African-Americans, he has the responsibility of being President of the entire country. Obama's presidency does not relieve leaders at a grass roots, local or national level for advocating for their constituencies and presenting him with an agenda, in the same way that labor, business, or educators do.

West, on the other hand, believes that Obama has become too beholden to the very interests that depress the capacity of minorities and the poor to achieve their full potential. He criticizes the President for filling his cabinet with the same business oligarchs that have irresponsibly widened the gap between the wealthy and the poor. West exhorts all of those concerned about justice and equity to 'hold the president accountable'. And he challenged Sharpton to be careful, lest he be held hostage and lose his objectivity regarding Obama and therefore his prophetic edge.

The exchange, at the risk of belaboring the word, got really heated...

What was strange to me, was, that while I watched these two giants 'go at it' was that they were both right!

Those of us who support Obama must avoid the risk of being uncritical in our support. Too much compromise, too much 'taking what the defense will give you' ultimately leave those who have never experienced 'pre-Great Recession Prosperity', worse off than before. He must be challenged to remember that it wasn't Wall Street that invested their hopes, dreams and aspirations in his candidacy and his election. And it is our responsibility to find the ways to hold him accountable to propose, push for and enact policies that reduce the horrendous unemployment rate among blacks; the disproportionate representation of blacks and Hispanics in the criminal justice system and the wholesale economic disinvestment in our urban areas.

On the other hand, Sharpton is right. Blacks may consider Obama 'our' President. But he is, most importantly 'OUR' president. He cannot be a the 'black' President. He has to be President of all America. That means he has to make sure that his policies work for the entire country and not just a certain segment...any certain segment. While there must be attention paid to the poor, that attention cannot be paid because of black poverty, but because pervasive, extensive poverty will ultimately stall any efforts for bring this economy back. It has to include the business community. But it has to include all communities.

But this doesn't mean that nothing can be done for blacks by blacks. We have to have advocates and an agenda. And we have to advocate those interests, among many competing interests. We have to know what we can do without the government and we have to understand the systemic barriers which impede our progress toward equality. It means our community and grassroots leaders still have work to do. It means the politicians, elected by our communities still have work to do. It means our business leaders have work to do. It means our educators still have work to do.

It means that, even with a President who happens to be black, every black, brown and even every poor person and everyone allied with them, still has work to do. For us to not recognize that, means we place upon the president a burden we've not placed on any other White House occupant.

Essentially, West and Sharpton argued to sides of the same coin of truth: we have to remember that Barack Obama is a politician that has to be held accountable and we as citizens must recognize our accountability as citizens to work beyond the ballot box to achieve our dreams.

Watching West and Sharpton was uncomfortable, engaging...and it was enlightening. It reminded me that democracy, as my mentors have taught me is a messy, noisy and argumentative affair. It's not idol worship - its real work. We may not all agree...but we must all go to work, if its going to work for all of us!

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