Obama, Black Leaders: It's Complicated

Author Jonathan Alter examines the president's relationships with his prominent black critics and allies.

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Cornel West (John Lamparski/WireImage); The Center Holds (Simon & Schuster); Al Sharpton (Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

In this essay, adapted from his book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, author Jonathan Alter breaks down the relationship between President Barack Obama and prominent African Americans, including Cornel West, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson, from the 2012 midterm elections to his second inauguration.

In July 2010 the president spotted Cornel West in the front row of the audience for his speech to the National Urban League. West had given speeches around the country saying that Obama wasn't a true progressive and that he couldn't "in good conscience" tell people to vote for him, though he admitted that his failure to secure special inauguration tickets for his mother and brother contributed to his hard feelings.

After the Urban League speech, Obama came down to West's seat and grew angry. "I'm not progressive? What kind of sh-- is this?" the president hissed, his face contorted. West said later that a brassy African-American woman standing behind him told the president to his face, "How dare you speak to Dr. West like that!" and argued after Obama left that the obscenity would have justified removal by the Secret Service had it come from anyone else.

In the months following the confrontation, West stepped up his attacks, calling Obama a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats." He added, "I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin."

After the blowup with West, the president welcomed Al Sharpton and a half-dozen other black hosts and commentators to the Roosevelt Room of the White House. The subject turned to Tavis Smiley, a PBS host (and co-host of a radio show with West) who was also severely critical of Obama. Tom Joyner, a strong Obama supporter and host of the top-rated black talk-radio show, thought that West and Smiley (neither of whom was invited) were causing other blacks to denigrate the president. He began to mix it up with the author Michael Eric Dyson, who wanted the administration to target its efforts more on particular black needs.

Obama jumped in to say he had no problem with Dyson or anyone else disagreeing with him about how to help the needy. What upset him was critics who "question my blackness and my commitment to blacks." He felt the community needed to be a little more sophisticated politically. "If I go out there saying ‘black, black,' do you think that will help black people?" he asked, arguing that Congress would never support legislation explicitly intended for African Americans. His legislative program was aimed at helping all Americans but would disproportionately help blacks: "Pell Grants? Black people. Health care? Black people."

The president's record showed that he had delivered for African Americans far beyond college loans and Obama care. The stimulus saved hundreds of thousands of jobs of state and local workers, a large percentage of them black, and provided $850 million for historically black colleges as part of its aid to higher education. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 ended the discrepancy in punishment for crimes that involve the same amounts of crack and powdered cocaine.

The extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit kept millions of the working poor, disproportionately black, from slipping back into poverty, and the extension of unemployment insurance and food stamps helped millions of African Americans. But with black unemployment at 14 percent and 4 out of 10 young black males still caught up in the criminal-justice system, Obama had hardly transformed the community he had sought to join when he was a young man.

In early March of 2013, Sharpton and seven other African-American leaders met with the president in the Roosevelt Room. The issue of whether Obama was pursuing a pro-black agenda came up again. Sharpton told the story of a friend who converted to Islam, then ate a ham sandwich and claimed it wasn't pork. Sharpton told the president, "I said to my friend that day, 'Just because it's not called pork doesn't mean it isn't.' And just because your agenda isn't called pro-black doesn't mean it isn't." Obama was happy to embrace the pork metaphor.

The president was feeling liberated and free to express himself a little more now. About a month after the election, the Obamas hosted a small party for close friends and a few people from the administration and the campaign. The president was standing in a small group and said he was the only president since Roosevelt to have won twice with more than 51 percent of the vote. It was true that Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all had three-way races that kept them under 51 percent.