Does Obama Owe a Debt to Black America?
Straight Up: Perhaps it's time some leaders got over a desire for a race-specific agenda.
Of course, who defines what it is to be true to the group and to the cause is an endlessly fraught set of questions. In what Touré has called the era of post-blackness in his book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now, there are at least 40 million ways of validating a claim to blackness. There is no singular, simple black agenda and no simple, singular way to advance the interests of black America.
The clearest evidence we have of what black America wants, ironically, is the 95 percent vote for Obama in 2012. As such, in this post-black moment, I want to suggest loudly and plainly that this includes the clear legitimacy of an African-American president whose core focus is on a universal, not race-specific, policy agenda. The strategy was articulated 25 years ago by eminent African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson in his pivotal work The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy.
We need only look back to the last occasion when a president focused national attention on race to make us wary of calls to elevate such an agenda. President Bill Clinton's "Conversation on Race," although virtuous in motivation and high in ambition, did not produce the constructive social discourse -- and certainly not the policy agenda and outcomes -- that its advocates had expected. I see nothing in the current political climate suggesting that a renewed effort of this kind would fare any better.
Indeed, not only do the black-authenticity police need to leave Obama alone on this point, but we would all be better off if they acknowledged the political viability and sophistication of what he is doing. Obama's recent call for a raise in the minimum age to assure an above-poverty-level standard of living and for universal access to early-childhood education -- policies applicable to a wide segment of the American populace -- will likely be of special benefit to African Americans, especially the most economically disadvantaged segments of black America. The left, especially the black left, should be cheering on these proposals and be part of public pressure to ensure their speedy enactment.
Having said this, I do believe that Obama may soon face a need to lay out a defense of and strategy for affirmative action. If the John Roberts Supreme Court scales back affirmative action in the Fisher v. Texas case it is now deciding, as seems likely, I do believe that Obama will have to weigh in, and do so in order to explicitly make the case for law and social policies that advance goals of diversity and inclusion.
I neither expect nor want Obama to articulate a black policy agenda. Black activists, intellectuals and community leaders need to be responsible for developing this agenda. Obama was elected president of the United States and should lead as such. With respect to blacks as a pivotal element of his constituency, Obama has outlined a smart, progressive agenda that appeals to the interests and needs of a wide segment of the American populace that will likely be of clear benefit to the economically disadvantaged of all races. It's time to let the post-black president do the job we elected him to do.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.