Television and radio journalist Tavis Smiley took some major hits during the presidential campaign when he had the audacity to suggest that Black folks should expect then candidate Barack Obama to respond to Black issues and be held accountable in some measure to Black people in exchange for our support. The reaction was so furious that Brother Tavis resigned as a Commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. I understand that B.E.T. Political Analyst Jeff Johnson recently provoked some controversy among Blacks when he also suggested that President Barack Obama should respond to Black issues/concerns. Maxine Waters, outspoken Congresswoman from Los Angeles, warned the Obama administration that she was not about to sit on the sidelines and watch billions of dollars go to banks and insurance companies, the same crowd whose reckless behavior precipitated the economic collapse, while the urgent needs of Blacks in devastated urban communities are neglected. After releasing the State of Black America Report, which showed continuing disparities between Blacks and Whites in critical areas such as health, education, income and wealth, Marc Morial, President/CEO of the National Urban League challenged President Obama to prioritize Black concerns. And, from the very outset of the presidential campaign, Professor Cornell West, arguably Black America’s leading public intellectual, insisted that Blacks should offer “critical support” to Obama — working on his behalf but exercising the right to advocate for Black issues and to offer constructive criticism where necessary and appropriate.
All of these outstanding leaders are on the right track, striving to educate Black people about the principled process by which electoral political engagement should function. I have devoted much of my life working to have our people internalize the idea that vision, principles, values, systems and process must be an indispensable dimension of Black empowerment as we engage in the electoral political arena. As Ossie Davis aptly put it, our electoral political pursuits should not simply revolve around the man (or woman) but the “plan.” Like other groups functioning within the electoral political arena, Africans in America must come to the table with a plan/agenda rather than being captivated by the man/woman no matter how dynamic or charismatic he/she may be.
Politics is the process through which a group, community or nation establishes its goals and objectives for survival and development. Every group should have a process for establishing/setting its agenda of interests, issues and aspirations. Then the group must work/struggle/fight/engage to acquire and maintain the power to implement its agenda. This necessarily requires communicating the agenda upfront to candidates at all levels and of whatever race, ethnicity or gender as a pre-condition for our votes/support. The next step is to demand that the agenda be acted on to ensure that there is a meaningful relationship between ballots cast for a candidate and the delivery of goods, services and opportunities for our people. To act in any other manner is to fundamentally misunderstand how electoral politics works. It is to set oneself up for huge disappointment when our issues are ignored and/or there is no substantial change in the conditions in our communities.
It is necessary, imperative that we hold elected officials accountable, including the President of the United States. And, this should have very little to do with skin color. It should have everything to do with the vision, substance and content of the political ideas and policies of a candidate in relationship to our political agenda. To recite former Congressman Bill Clay’s adaptation of Churchill’s dictum of politics, Black people should have “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just a permanent interest.”
In the era of the 60s, as the civil rights revolt transitioned into the Black power movement, there was an assumption that electing Black people to political office would lead to an improvement in the quality of life in our communities – a rather naïve belief that simply replacing White faces with Black faces in old places would translate into social justice and social change. Many Black elected officials accepted their mission as leaders charged with compelling the system to produce change to the maximum degree possible for Black people, other people of color, poor and working people. Unfortunately, there were also Blacks who aspired to hold office to engage in deal cutting and self-aggrandizing politics; others simply lacked the political consciousness to effectively utilize public office as a vehicle for Black empowerment. Flush with the euphoria/pride of having Blacks in office in substantial numbers for the first time since Reconstruction, there was a tendency to “trust” elected officials to do the right thing. Blacks have often been content to elect people to office without structures and processes to hold them accountable. This has led to disillusionment, frustration, apathy and alienation among voters when elections seemingly failed to produce meaningful results/change.
The lesson to be learned from these experiences is that “change you can believe in” is change you must hold elected officials accountable for based on a public policy agenda. Otherwise the investment in a candidate could well prove fruitless. This is precisely why the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) is gearing up to hold a National Town Hall Meeting April 24th in Washington, DC on the eve of President Obama’s first 100 days to assess progress on critical issues of concern to Black America (www.reportcardonobama.com). Moreover, IBW will announce the formation of the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission, Co-Chaired by Dr. Ronald Walters and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, to issue a Report Card on President Obama every six months. The purpose for these exercises is not to “hate” on President Obama, whom many of us believe will be one of the greatest Presidents in the history of this country, but to temper the euphoria and optimism with the somber reality that it’s not just the man or woman but the plan, the agenda that matters in electoral politics. We must hold elected officials accountable at all levels, and that includes our President.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at .
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