Black activists need to steal a page from the LGBT movement, which, ironically, has taken a page from the 1960s civil rights movement and the issue-driven black politics of the 1970s and 1980s. Mixing protest politics and electoral politics, deploying insider and outsider advocates, and most important, developing a clear policy agenda, the gay rights movement has been effective in pushing Obama to support its goals.
The president has gone to bat for gay rights, even at the risk of alienating some independent voters and plenty of conservatives, who can’t be thrilled when Newsweek magazine declares Obama “the first gay president.” But he has been unwilling to do the same for top black priorities. He has even berated African American leaders, telling members of the Congressional Black Caucus last year to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and get behind him.
Obama may be our first gay president, but if a focus on racial inequality matters at all, we’re still waiting for our first black one. Or at least the first black president since Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs.
Making history is important, and for many black voters, the symbolic weight of a black family in the White House is well worth the price of presidential silence on a few key issues. Black America — whether ordinary working people, Ivy League professors or Wall Street executives — has largely closed ranks around Obama. Public criticism of the president by African Americans is considered by many other blacks to be borderline treasonous.“Let’s not even deal with facts right now,” popular black radio host Tom Joyner has written. Let’s deal with just our blackness and pride — and loyalty. We have the chance to re-elect the first African American president, and that’s what we ought to be doing. And I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that as black people, we should do it because he’s a black man.”
There is a time for symbols, but there is also a time to place interests above symbolism. Symbols can inspire, but they can also legitimize conditions as they are. What is at stake now is more than pride, more than history, more than an imagined color-blind, post-racial society. What is at stake is our ability to ensure and commit to policies that not only “help everyone” but that directly target the persistence of racial inequality. Pride cannot stand in as a cure for Depression-level unemployment, for a community on the front lines of the mortgage crisis, for the ravages of AIDS or for the hope that a rising tide will lift us all.
If he won’t do it on his own, Obama will have to be pressured to act and to keep the few promises he made to black America in 2008. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it best: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.”
Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. This essay is adapted from his book “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics,” which will be published next week.
Read more from Outlook, including:
The first black president has made it harder to talk about race
Five myths about Barack Obama
Obama, the loner president
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