by Kamau Franklin
For the first time in generations, a presidential election campaign saw virtually no demands from the Black side of the electorate. Two years into Barack Obama’s term, a code of silence remains in force. “Are we so wrapped up in the symbolism of a black president that we can’t hold him accountable to the demands of a community that voted for him upwards of 97%?” And why this peculiar behavior by Black people? “Other communities don’t give up their right to make demands on political leaders they vote for.”
Does the Black President Owe Anything to the Black Community?
by Kamau K. Franklin
This article originally appeared on Mr. Franklin’s web site.
“Did the black community give up its rights to make demands because the president is black?”
Recently I read several articles from black intellectuals, pundits and politicians whose goal, it seems, is to inform black people that Obama is not the president of “black America” but of “all America.” Therefore, they argue that we should not expect him to do anything “special” for the black community. A byproduct of this is to let us know that any sentence that has the words “Obama,” “black” and “demands” – except if it states “Obama demands Black people…” – is a no-no and you will be branded with the number one insult in the black community (besides being labeled a snitch): “a hata.” I have great respect for some of these authors because of their history of work in our community. Yet there are other writers that think that if they stand next to two or more black people, they are in the ghetto and need to make a move before some gang shit happens. However, they all insinuate that to make demands or to criticize Obama makes you a hata. I would rather be a hater than a fool; the President owes the black community, not the other way around.
To be honest, anyone who knows me realizes that I am not a supporter of the US government; yes, I’ve burned a few flags in my day. I think that in the long-term, black people must control the political and economic institutions that hold sway over our lives. In the short and medium term, I strongly believe that anytime you pay taxes to a government entity, you have a right to make demands on how those taxes are spent. If the system says “vote for me and I will do the people’s bidding,” (you know, a representative democracy) then you have a right to demand that the elected official(s) you hire work in your interest. There may be other interests, other promises that also have to be fulfilled, but that does not mean your demands or needs as a community should be ignored.
“The President owes the black community, not the other way around.”
Since when does making demands on a politician make you the sell-out? Are we so wrapped up in the symbolism of a black president that we can’t hold him accountable to the demands of a community that voted for him upwards of 97%? Did the black community give up its rights to make demands because the president is black? That seems to be the argument that is being articulated by black mainstream pundits. It’s the familiar Democratic refrain that usually comes from white Democrats: don’t speak up too much because it will scare white folks. So instead we should remain silent, even as white folks are already scared that they are “losing their country” to the Muslim socialist from Kenya. But if the vast majority of the voting black community pulled the lever for him, then they should expect something back besides some speeches and chastisement on failing to be good parents.
Other communities don’t give up their right to make demands on political leaders they vote for. Latino communities have made demands on immigration reform; the gay community has made demands on changing “don’t ask don’t tell”; Wall Street and the ruling class make demands – well, they really control the joint so that may not be accurate – and Jewish communities make demands for Israel (formerly the homeland to a few million Palestinians). Obama himself speaks eloquently on equal rights for women. Without any prodding, he uses his daughters as examples of why it’s important to create an equal playing ground in education and career opportunities. His first act was to sign into law equal pay rights for women (which is of course needed). This is not to suggest that some demands that are made don’t affect members of the black community, it is to point out that the demands are not led by black groups and leaders professing them to be part of a black agenda. No one says that any of the above groups have no right to make demands. People are skeptical that some of these demands will actually be met, but no one suggests that the communities or constituencies is “hatin” because the demands were made.
“Jesse Jackson was probably the last of the black mainstream pundits, politicians and intellectuals to have a sincere platform of black demands.”
The question that is asked by the mainstream black pundits is: does the black community have demands? We are not monolithic so there are no “black” demands. Haven’t we heard this tired line long enough? As if the leading social indicators of lack of wealth, poverty, health care, housing, unemployment and incarceration don’t scream of the groundwork for coherent demands for any group. There is not a negative social or economic indicator in which black people have not been at the bottom of since well, slavery. Jesse Jackson was probably the last of the black mainstream pundits, politicians and intellectuals to have a sincere platform of black demands. It was Jesse who led the demand for an urban Marshal plan to rebuild the cities where black people live and create jobs. Other coherent black demands that can be made include school and police decentralization, having parents and community members have a real say in who gets hired and fired in the classroom and in the precinct. The government could offer block grants to facilitate the turning over of public housing to the residents to create a layer of wealth as opposed to destroying this housing. The creation of land trusts to keep housing stable in various communities. More moderate demands could be set asides for black business or businesses that employ a certain amount of so-called minorities. More federally sponsored health clinics in black communities to deal with issues including infant mortality. There are many more, this is just a sampling of demands that could be made.
Most are not new, they are demands from our movements in the 60’s and 70s and even prior to this. When some uncritically attack that history they do so at our peril. It was then that we were at the height of our understanding of what needed to happen in our community. Coherent demands were being made to the political class while at the same time the call for “nation time” was taking place with serious institution-building being developed. It was then that the movement was killed mafia-style and the various voices silenced, to be slowly replaced by corporate media engineered spokespeople with none of the out molded ideas of black community control instead they offer the power to distract, destroy and separate, aka, the rise of the mainstream Black pundit.
“The movement was killed mafia-style and the various voices silenced, to be slowly replaced by corporate media engineered spokespeople.”
The black middle class, what there is of it, falling back down to the ghetto after the foreclosure of your house, how y’all doin? We missed some of y’all in Albany Projects in the BK! Nice to see ya, welcome back, welcome back, welcome back. Don’t complain though, don’t be hatas, just put a picture of the president on your wall. Now doesn’t that feel better? Hey! Last hired first fired black working class, those unemployment numbers look like the Jefferson’s, “movin on up” to depression era highs, but keep that ass quiet. Don’t hate just cause you can’t find a job! Here…wear this Obama t-shirt until you figure out a way to buy some new clothes. Hey poor people, well ya’ll was fucked anyway, so keep it quiet while you are getting profiled. Be like Skip Gates and just get a beer with the cop after his shift, don’t sue or anything that may bring attention. Here, wear this Obama button, it may stop a bullet, we got a symbol to protect.
These Black mainstream identifiers of what time it is groom their opinions to appear relevant to corporate media to be safe and within the margins of debate. Their job is to continuously tell you that there are no black demands, only the liberal wing of the Democratic Party speaks for us. Most importantly, they don’t defend the right of black people to control and own the economics and politics in our community. Rarely if ever do we hear statements about building black-run and -controlled institutions, about ownership, about black demands on elected officials. They tell us that we must debate these things like good moderates who have no racial interest anymore. We would not want to lose that paycheck and speak truth to power anymore, because power pays.
Such an intellectually dishonest position, but for some it pays the bills. And when we are tired of defending the symbol of hope, they tell us to move on to other important newsworthy topics in black life. I love the new kings of Hip-Hop and R&B – Eminem and Justin Bieber. Well maybe we got some shows on BET. Wait, I think it has been about a decade since that was black-owned, but I think the programming is better – hmm…. Whew, there is always Oprah. Hey, if we can only stop saying nigga, we would be alright. I guess all we have is the symbolism of a black president we hold onto so tight until that moment, every now and then, that you remember you can’t eat it or put it on a resume so at the end of the day it’s just a feel good brain fuck.
“Here, wear this Obama button, it may stop a bullet, we got a symbol to protect.”
Meanwhile, who has the most serious movement-making demands as our black mainstreamers talk it up and we let ourselves and those who speak about us push us into this box of just being grateful to have a black president – the rich and the majority of the white working class. Look at the crazies in white America (and they are crazy) both rich and poor shaking up the Republican Party, making demands for smaller government, lower taxes, reducing the debt, keeping their guns and kicking that symbol (how many ways can they say “nigger” without using the word) out of office. Look at the Republican Party going nuts (and they are nuts) to accommodate these constituents. I have not read any story that asks the question: who are these white tea partiers to make demands on the government? People may think they are being brought and paid for – and they are. Some on the left may think that the white working class is turning against their class interests, and they are, but no one suggests they don’t have interest. The white working class has always had demands, nine out of ten times those demands make a right, not left, turn and it’s easy to explain – the left don’t have jobs to offer or a special place for the white working class to think they’re closer to God than anyone else, especially you-know-who. The white working class sides with the money most of the time.
The black community, which is historically to the left of the majority of white people (that’s why the communists always have us on the cover of their paper) and other communities in the US, however, does not have a movement. On government social spending, anti-war, civil and human rights, gay rights (yes even here in spite of the conservatism at the head of the black church, the majority faith for most black people in America is filled with accepted gay believers. (Do you know what the black choir would look like if gay men were kicked out? You ever been to a Knicks game in June? – yeah, about the same). However this passion is currently in check, historically it has not released itself in a great way since the destruction of movement politics in the 1970s. There have been a few blips in the late 70s and 80s as in the affirmative action and anti-apartheid struggles, but the steady drift has been to take the black masses out of the political debate. We have been marginalized as a community by both white and black politicians and so-called mainstream intellectuals and pundits who cluster to be well known individuals who offer a good quick quip – we have overcome, we all have to work together, get out and vote, we are not a community, it’s post-racial in America.
“The steady drift has been to take the black masses out of the political debate.”
The post black power/civil rights era (notice not post racial but post movement in America) that was largely destroyed by outside forces and inside fratricide has left us intellectually defenseless to those who would tell us not to make demands, not to have expectations, or else be called “hata.” How long can we let this anti-intellectual phase popularized by black youth culture dominate community interaction? When did we start adopting the slogans of young musicians as words to live by? Are they the philosophical queens and kings of our discourse? Why do we live by a creed of “no critique”? Is that really better than a discussion to draw out the positives and negatives of a political figure that millions of us voted for? Many of the Black pundits and defenders of the no “hata” mantra come off as reactionary nationalists, who on the one hand claim there are no Black community demands—or none should be made because Obama is not the president of Black America – but on the other hand, defend the Black President only because he is Black.
Would it not be a sign of political maturity to put aside that Obama is the first black president and to judge by the (worsening) conditions since the election and to make demands based on that? This is not to say that the conditions are Obama’s fault, but there are things that government can do that needs to be demanded of it from the community. In fact by creating a left self-determining pole of black demands, it could even provide cover for the President to meet some of those demands. More importantly it puts us as a people back in the middle of a conversation on what is in the best interest of our community. That is not something that we can leave to mainstream black pundits who keep their distance from any conversation on what is best for the black community and how to achieve it.
Activist attorney Kamau K. Franklin is a leading member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He is the former co-chair of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and a past member of the Executive Committee of the National Lawyers Guild. He can be contacted at kamauadeabiodun(at)yahoo.com.