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The lack of a black agenda

Most African Americans believe racial inequality is still a problem. But class divisions have prevented a consensus on what to do about it.

August 01, 2009|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to the Opinion pages. Her blog, Cakewalk, is at kcet.org.

Barack Obama finally showed up.

On the centennial anniversary of the NAACP last month, the president took the microphone at the organization's convention in New York and, for the first time since his inauguration, spoke directly to black Americans.

Noting that it was "good to be among friends," he went on to deliver a clear, sometimes informal and impassioned speech on the state of the race -- his race. He unselfconsciously used the terms "us" and "we." He charted the victories of the black past and described the present as much more paradoxical: Civil rights was the battle of the previous generation, he said, but persistent inequality is the fight of the present one. He even said that American society suffers from "structural inequality," a phrase loathed by conservatives and plenty of liberals too.

The appreciative audience shouted amens and hooted with pride. It was in part because of the work of the NAACP, Obama acknowledged, that he was able to stand before the organization on its 100th birthday as the 44th president of the United States, an astonishing development.

And yet, today, the fate of black folk is far from certain and is in some ways less secure than at any time in the last 100 years. Why? Blacks don't have an agenda. They have no lobby.

Obama's empathy was heartening, and the crowd's connection with him was moving. But all of that is emotion. It is not a plan of action.

Ironically, one key reason black people don't have an action plan has to do with the middle class that Obama addressed. Growing divisions of class and expectations have stalled blacks in a crisis of inaction for decades, unable or unwilling to fight against the damning statistics -- in health, education, incarceration, employment -- of a black reality that has wounded us all. It's a reality that Obama articulated very clearly and soberly (and that he first articulated, though less forcefully, in his now-famous "race" speech last year). Obama understands that his singular success, far from pointing to a post-racial America, illuminates collective black failure like nothing else.

Most blacks believe that there is still racial inequality, and many of us experience it directly. We just don't agree on what to do about it. Though you wouldn't have known that last year, when blacks formed a rock-solid voting bloc behind Obama in the general election. It was a relief to put aside class differences that flared up like oil fires in heated debates between Bill Cosby and Michael Eric Dyson, Al Sharpton and Don Imus. How much more satisfying it was to act instead of react, to support an educated, ambitious, self-aware striver, exactly the sort so many black leaders through the generations have held up as a model for the race.

That was candidate Obama; President Obama is a different story. He's potentially part of the problem. It is the strivers, after all, who are in the best position to advocate for poorer blacks who need the most help. Yet they have failed to do so, in part perhaps because they perceive their less-fortunate brethren as having misplaced values that reflect badly on the race. (Obama channeled a bit of Cosby in his NAACP speech when he advised parents to "turn off the Xbox" and reclaim the community traditions that sustained us in the past.)

Other groups -- Latinos, women, gays -- have no problem agitating for the disenfranchised among them. They rightfully want to know where Obama stands on immigration, abortion, civil liberties, gay unions and marriage. Blacks have become uniquely convinced that such groupthink inhibits their success, that they can get a seat at the table only if they drop their interest in the less fortunate and politically problematic. Can Obama, a black man who's now heading the table, change this dynamic?

Don't count on it. Look what happened recently when Obama criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for arresting and charging black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in what looked like a classic incident of racial profiling. Whites so objected to this critique -- that is, to Obama reacting like an average black man instead of an "exceptional" one -- that the president wound up qualifying his remarks. Of course, the president is also busy, mostly with trying to reverse a historic economic decline that's sinking us all.

And as aware as the president is that blacks have been under siege for decades -- the jobless rate among black males nationwide is downright alarming -- he hinted that he can't effect change by himself. One of the things the NAACP founders knew, Obama said, was that "presidents needed to be pressured into action." That's still true. It speaks to the difference between Obama and past figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.; King strove to be a trans-racial moral leader, while Obama strives to be a trans-racial political leader. Fulfilling both roles at once may prove to be just about impossible.

But our president does have an unprecedented opportunity to give racial inequality the prominence he says it still deserves. He could change the conservative paradigm that's gripped this country for too long and talk in racial specifics. He could put some muscle behind his declaration to the NAACP that poor education in the inner cities "is not a black or brown problem, it's an American problem."

Some observers say Obama's strategy from the beginning has been to let others do the high-profile race talk for him. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. made a startling speech in February in which he called America "a nation of cowards" for consistently ignoring the truth about our racial past -- and present. Encouraging, but what about policy? Where's our inequality czar?

As usual, leadership on the crisis in black is up to us. Now all we have to do is figure out who "us" is.

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