Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton face off

Criticizing President Obama is a hard sell in the black community. Even with the Great Recession wreaking havoc in every nook and cranny of African-American life, it’s not easy to get a discouraging word from black folks about America’s first black president.

And those who do utter such words often face community enmity and questions about their motives.

Blacks are intensely loyal to the first of their own, but while this strong sense of racial allegiance is understandable, it’s producing a logjam in our political culture.

Note the recent public spat between former presidential candidate and activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the commentator and author.

On the popular “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” Smiley told radio listeners: “A chorus of black leaders have started singing a new song, saying that the president doesn’t need a black agenda. I must have missed that choir rehearsal, because I don’t know the words to this new hymn. Do we think we can give President Obama a pass on black issues and somehow, when he is no longer in office, resurrect the moral authority to hold future presidents accountable to our concerns?”

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That good question was prompted by public comments Sharpton made following a White House meeting that he, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and National Urban League President Marc Morial had with Obama.

Sharpton reportedly said the president need not “ballyhoo” a black agenda. He argued that Obama faced political constraints and could best assist distressed black communities with a broader, race-neutral strategy.

Smiley strongly disagreed. And the feud was on.

Expecting Obama to become a “black exponent of black views” is “just stupid,” Sharpton told Smiley in one of many testy exchanges.

At the heart of the disagreement are the following questions:

Is Obama’s race-neutral approach appropriate considering the many miseries afflicting black America? Why should African-American activists stop pressing for attention to their issues just because the president now is black? Wouldn’t it have been perverse to fight for a black president just so he could ignore or downplay the desperate needs of the black community?

Those in the Sharpton camp argue he should avoid black issues lest it enflame white opposition to a point where it could cripple his presidency. If Obama pushed a black cause it would empower conservatives seeking to derail progressive legislation. Let us not forget, they note, that it hasn’t been that long since the days of Jim Crow apartheid.

What’s more, they argue, with tea partiers ominously waving their assault rifles and screaming for Obama’s political blood, now is not a propitious time for a black agenda.

Sharpton took unusual umbrage at the criticism because in some ways Smiley had usurped his traditional role. Sharpton had been the one on the outside throwing rocks. Now he is an insider and a bit uncomfortable with his new role as presidential apologist.

That’s certainly a change for the brash minister who made his name fighting police brutality and racial assaults on black victims. But it’s just one of many changes wrought by Obama’s historic ascension.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of the Chicago-based In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com). This op-ed is an adaptation of an article in the May issue of the magazine. He can be contacted at pmproj@progressive.org.

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