by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
In the two hours of MSNBC’s corporate-sponsored “Black Agenda” featuring Al Sharpton and Ed Schulz, hosts and guests mentioned the Pentagon, its multiple wars and trillion dollar budget not even once. In their imaginary world, these have nothing to do with the funds not available for Medicaid, Medicare, education, jobs, or social security. The “black agenda” as handed down by Rev. Al is to shut up and support the president, thus limiting and dooming black politics to irrelevance.
Al Sharpton & MSNBC Shrink the Black Agenda
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
" the corporate-sponsored “Black Agenda” of Rev. Al and his pals stops at the water’s edge. It dares not question the US global empire, as long as a black man is the titular head of it..."
Sunday’s two hour MSNBC special “The Black Agenda — A Stronger America” was worse than a disappointment. It was a farce. In between a full half hour of commercials, Al Sharpton, Ed Schulz, Marc Morial, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Jim Brown and the rest managed to avoid mentioning the wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere even once. Hosts and guests alike pretended to live in some imaginary country, one where the trillion or so dollars a year the Pentagon spends murdering and laying waste to Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, and stationing US troops in 145 countries has nothing to do with the funds unavailable for schools and libraries, for social security, Medicaid and Medicare, or job creation or mass transit, or the “shared” sacrifices demanded of the poor by the nation’s first black president.
Clearly, the corporate-sponsored “Black Agenda” of Rev. Al and his pals stops at the water’s edge. It dares not question the US global empire, as long as a black man is the titular head of it. In other times, Rev. Al has had the stones to question unjust wars. But that was then. This is now. This stunning omission was compounded by blatant hypocrisy, as the name of Dr. Martin Luther King was invoked dozens of times in questions and answers and asides about “King’s movement,” “King’s legacy,” and “King’s dream.”
The program led off with a quick “state of black America” by a forgettable MSNBC face who extolled the exodus of blacks from the central cities not as a result of gentrification driving them out, but as middle class blacks availing themselves of a better life in the suburbs, and sinking their hands in the soil of the South from which their ancestors came. Needless to say, this picture of voluntary relocation is wildly at odds with the real lives of most black families who leave the cities, or move southward. But for quality and depth of analysis, it set the tone for the two hours.
“...for Morial, and the White House, everything was fine until the movement “letdown” of the November 2010 election...”
Revealingly, the Urban League's Marc Morial seemed to shrink “the movement” to a mobilization around Obama’s candidacy and the Democratic party. The movement, he declared, experienced a high point with the election of the president in 2008, and a “letdown” in 2010.
For Morial and his class of black misleaders, the letdown was not when the president failed to address black mass incarceration or black joblessness. It was not when the president allowed the continuing wave of foreclosures to disproportionately strip the wealth of black America in his first half-term, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. For Morial, the letdown was not when the president froze the wages of federal workers, escalated the wars in Middle East, doubled down on the Bush bailouts, or betrayed his promises to reconsider NAFTA and pass the Employee Free Choice Act. In Morial’s world, the black masses exist to serve their leaders, not the other way around. Leaders are free to cut whatever deals they can, and may betray their base at will. Hence for Morial, and the White House, everything was fine until the movement “letdown” of the November 2010 election.
The only moments worth viewing occurred in a single segment when a black Republican declared that many African Americans were livid with the President for repeatedly selling them out, and had mounted what he described as a “whispering campaign” The lady who once confronted with her disappointment at a Florida town meeting chimed in that “it used to be a silent movement... it’s gaining momentum.” A few minutes later, Cornel West pricked the notoriously thin skinned Sharpton, saying that the president appeared to be “a black mascot for Wall Street oligarchs” and telling Sharpton the insider that “I fear for you.”
Rev. Al responded with a shouted torrent of straw men and ad hominem attacks against “ivory tower intellectuals,” and the Congressional black caucus, as though all these were to blame for preventing the president from fulfilling his promises to the people who voted for him, and were supremely ungrateful for the visionary leadership provided by this White House. Whenever Ed Schulz wasn’t heaping fulsome praise on Rev. Al, the roles of the co-hosts were to excuse the president, blame the Black Caucus or the Tea Party, and turn aside any notion that the White House owed black America anything in return for its uncritical support.
There were few highlights, but plenty of low points. There was Professor Karen Hunter of Hunter College, who seemed at first to have come to the studio unprepared to do anything but echo her co-panelists, but eventually distinguished herself as one of those champions of “individual responsibility” relentlessly disparaging any notion of collective action on education and other policy matters.
“...co-host Ed Schulz appeared to chuckle a bit near the end of the show when he observed that black America , unlike every other constituency that elects somebody to high office, is reluctant to make demands for fear of weakening “their” first black president...”
There was an MSNBC / the Grio contributor named Jeff Johnson who pronounced unions as deeply problematic for black people, but said we ought to be talking about “workers rights.” Johnson seemed unaware that African Americans are statistically more likely to join or form a union than anybody else, and he forgot to tell us what forces in society would speak or fight for the rights of workers better than workers self-organized into unions. Bloggers? Grio contributors, maybe?
There was most of an hour (minus commercials) on education, but no mention of the half million dollar bribe Rev. Al took from friends of NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein to become an outspoken advocate of charter schools, high stakes testing and the firing of mostly black public school teachers. Sharpton did mention in passing that he teamed up with his fellow stooge Newt Gingrich to do a nationwide school reform tour, but left out Arne Duncan or the specifics of his, and the administration's common ground with Newt on destroying public education.Ben Jealous of the NAACP got to do his drive-by on black mass incarceration, being careful not to put his president or Democrats in Congress on the spot. Unmentioned was the fact that the best a black president with majorities in both houses of Congress could do on the 100 to 1 crack to powder cocaine disparity was to reduce it to 18 to 1, mostly by raising the penalties for powdered cocaine. No mention was made of repealing mandatory minimums, or the “ban the box” campaigns waged by community groups across the country.
“Obama's not the president of black America,” “...he's not a civil rights leader,...” “...people are expecting this president to do everything,...” “...he doesn't walk on water..” and other such drivel flew from the mouths of Schulz and Sharpton just about as frequently as the term “black agenda” itself. Sharpton spent far more heated rhetoric railing against “unrealistic” black expectations than against his supposed foes in the Tea Party and corporate boardrooms. Even co-host Ed Schulz appeared to chuckle a bit near the end of the show when he observed that black America , unlike every other constituency that elects somebody to high office, is reluctant to make demands for fear of weakening “their” first black president. A blind person can see that if you elect people you dare not trouble with your agenda, you have made yourself and your agenda irrelevant.
The uninspired MSNBC “Black Agenda” show was demonstrably inferior even to Tavis Smiley's old State of Black America affairs. Where the Tavis show fulfilled its sponsorship obligation by making sure that the logos of foreclosure giant Bank of America, or low wage McDonalds and Wal-Mart were always in every frame behind every speaker, MSNBC had to do it with ten or twelve commercial breaks, some lasting almost four minutes. MSNBC gave its “Black Agenda” a shorter time frame, fewer guests and no audience participation, lest the guest commentary spiral out of the hosts' control.
“...transformative politics, the politics of movements that change the world are the politics of the impolite, politics of the unreasonable, politics of the impossible.”
Of course neither the Tavis all-star show or the corporate MSNBC product have much to do with any “black agenda.” The Tavis Smiley spectacles were canceled after the election of President Obama for obvious reasons. C-SPAN is the corporate cable industry, and could have no interest in fostering a black conversation that might include criticisms of the White House and Democrats from the left. With Republicans safely back in control of Congress, MSNBC decided they could trust Rev. Al and Ed to keep a small number of guests in line, and divert the criticisms to the Tea Party, and ungrateful parts of the Democratic base.
If we accept the definitions of “black agenda” and “black politics” offered us by MSNBC and Rev. Al, we're pretty screwed. In their world, politics is and will always be “the art of the possible.” But transformative politics, the politics of movements that change the world are the politics of the impolite, politics of the unreasonable, politics of the impossible. They want us to forget that nothing the young people in the Freedom Movement were demanding in the late 1950s was reasonable or possible for the politics of the day.
And if the first black president owes us nothing – not green or any other kind of jobs, not ending mandatory minimums or unjust wars or torture, not preserving and extending Medicaid, Medicare and social security, then black America should be absolved of any collective duty to support him. It's only when we opt out of that foolish bargain, that we will see the beginnings once again of a meaningful black politics, and a black agenda.