A question for all legacy civil rights groups: Will there finally be a strong black agenda now that the next president will be white?
President Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked that advocates frequently wanted him to do the politically difficult. What did he reportedly tell them? “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
If a civil rights leader can walk in and out of the White House more than 70 times in seven years, one would assume that he’d be thinking of what FDR said over 70 years ago. And if there is one group in American politics that can’t afford its leaders to take eight years off no matter what color the president is, it would be African Americans.
Yet that seems to be what has happened.
“There’s some blacks that said, ‘He needs to go with a black agenda, he needs to do this.’ He said when he was running, he wasn’t going to do that—duh,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told 60 Minutes in 2011. Why the lessons of “Power concedes nothing without a demand” need to be relearned 159 years later is anyone’s guess.
Last week the Department of Justice announced that it’s resuming a civil asset-forfeiture policy that allows police to take the property and assets of individuals who haven’t been convicted of anything.
“People who are victims of civil forfeiture are often poor, African American or Hispanic, and people who can’t afford an attorney to try to get the money,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2015. Where are black civil rights leaders on this?
In 2010 and 2013, President Barack Obama made deals with congressional Republicans to extend and then make permanent the George W. Bush tax cuts—typical “trickle down” economics. What followed were cuts to community block grants and Head Start. Many leaders backed the administration. In August 2013 the largest cut to Head Start in history occurred. There was also a spike in income inequality, since the Bush tax policies at that point had been in place since 2001.
After Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed the largest number of public schools at one time in history, shouldn’t civil rights leaders have been standing loudly in opposition? Was being critical of Obama’s former White House chief of staff that politically risky? Can anyone imagine the same silence if a white Republican mayor had done the same?
In 2011 there was a change in the Parent PLUS Loan standards, and HBCUs collectively lost over $150 million as 28,000 of their students were unable to pay tuition costs. Why were civil rights leaders silent?
If Martin Luther King Jr. had simply agreed with President Lyndon Johnson on everything, what would have resulted? Perhaps there should be a “What would King do?” rule for all civil rights organizations. But the page is quickly turning on legacy groups.
On March 29, Cornell Belcher’s polling firm Brilliant Corners released the results of a 546-person poll. People were asked which civil rights groups speak for them. The results showed that Black Lives Matter has passed legacy civil rights organizations as the advocates of choice.
This may be because the Black Lives Matter movement has won quantifiable results in a short period of time. We now have two presidential candidates with focused “racial justice” platforms. There was the creation of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, millions in federal money in body cameras and an ongoing focus on policy brutality that has gone international. It happened because of pressure—not because of TV appearances or banquets or corporate checks.
The Belcher poll is only one reason older African-American advocates should be reassessing the effectiveness of their leadership strategy moving forward. Any honest analysis should start by asking, how is it that more wasn’t won from having a Democrat in the White House for eight years whose party also controlled both houses of Congress for two? How is it that power wasn’t leveraged on a president who received more than 90 percent of black votes?
The current state of black America should tell us something: the highest unemployment rate over the last eight years since the 1980s, the lack of support for HBCUs, the historically low small business loan rates for black businesses, the widening wealth gap between black and white Americans, and high African-American poverty rates. Look if you dare. All have gotten worse over the last eight years.
The federal policy-advocacy game is a competition for money, attention and influence. Many black advocates may not like the hard truth, but here it is: Embarrassing the White House in public works. Loudly pointing out problems and making public demands works. Just ask LGBT and Hispanic advocates. Were they quiet over eight years? No. What did they win? Plenty.
And their demands are public and specific. This week the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda won commitments from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders to nominate Hispanics to their Cabinet if elected.
Some of what President Obama has accomplished has been beneficial for black communities; passing the Affordable Care Act and improved high school dropout numbers are two examples. Other decisions are likely to have decades of lasting influence: Obama has appointed more African-American federal judges than any other president in history.
But somewhere along the way over eight years, legacy civil rights groups viewed themselves as Obama’s self-appointed ministers of information and public relations. They protected him while not paying close attention to how his policies affected the 43 million people they say they advocate for.
The “inside game” strategy boosted Black Lives Matter. The failure to speak truth to power in public year after year gave more influence to a movement that recognized the obvious: The current advocacy wasn’t working.
In 2016, 31 percent of eligible voters are either black or Hispanic. Minorities are in the most powerful position in American history. Will that power be leveraged? If so, that leverage is likely to come from a new and younger group of civil rights leaders.