Ben Jealous, Al Sharpton, Marc Morial outside White House (YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty)

Let me see if I have this straight: talk show host Tavis Smiley blasted Rev. Al Sharpton and other black leaders because they're not pressing President Obama to promote a black agenda? Yeah, that would be a brilliant move for Obama.

It's not enough that he's under constant assault from birthers, Tea Partiers, neocons, Fox News, assorted hate groups and the Republicans. It's not enough that he's struggling for support of his goals on health care, the economy, climate control, financial reform, fighting terrorism and putting terrorists on trail. It's not enough that he's criticized from the left and from the right, for either pursuing bipartisanship or not trying hard enough, as he yields on certain positions and sticks to others - all while the GOP seeks to wrest control of Congress in the midterm elections.


No, if Obama really wants to break gridlock, siphon the Republicans' energy and give his sagging approval ratings a bump, now is the perfect time to champion policies designed specifically for black folks.

Really? If I can carry the metaphor a bit further, who died and made Smiley the choir director? And never mind that it's debatable whether a choir does, or should, exist: Black voices singing from different pages is nothing new.

W.E.B. Dubois sang classical while Booker T. Washington sang folk music. Bill Cosby croons the blues while Michael Eric Dyson busts out in hip-hop. Malcolm X rapped while Martin Luther King, Jr. sang gospel. The idea of a monolithic, monotone black community has caused immeasurable damage — both inside and outside the race, and that's nothing new, either.


In fact, there's only one thing new in this discussion about the existence, definition, execution and appropriateness of a black agenda: For the first time, the president is one of us. And that changes just about everything.

We've long been reluctant to criticize our own in mixed company, knowing full well that adequate, if not excessive, criticism would be forthcoming from others. That's not to say we agree or disagree with every critique. But we've typically kept our assessments amongst ourselves while trying our best to support one another publically, often to a fault.

However, less than 14 months into the first black president's term, it's way too early for Smiley or anyone to suggest black folks are giving Obama a pass. At least no more of a pass normally given to any Democrat, black or white. Sure, being both black and a Democrat virtually guarantees high support and approval ratings within our voting bloc, but this is hardly a case of, say, Marion Barry getting a pass and being re-elected repeatedly despite questionable behavior.


Whether or not black mayors and legislators eventually exhaust their reservoir of goodwill, how do we not cut Obama some slack from jump street? Knowing what we know about our country's ever-tenuous race relations, and the hardcore hate that's sprouting in some quarters, how can we expect Obama to come out with guns blazing on black issues?

 Now, we can't ignore the fact that blacks suffer disproportionately in this society, that what's akin to a cold for whites is like pneumonia for blacks. Just about any negative rate imaginable - unemployment, poverty, foreclosures, incarceration, dropout - is higher for blacks. So the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats isn't enough. Some boats are so mired, they need special attention and extra effort to escape the muck. And since blacks voted overwhelmingly for Obama, there's every right to expect he'll do what's necessary in return - just like every other group has expectations in return for its support. He must support programs and policies that will help his black constituency, whether he calls it part of a black agenda, or not.

But Obama didn't win the White House by trumpeting his goals to lift black folks, and he certainly won't remain in office (or ever see another like him) that way. Ultimately, if he never does anything that actually helps - which won't happen without a huge assist from Congress - check back in November 2012. But given his reticence to public discussion of racial issues, and his reluctance to view matters through a racial lenses in public, it's no surprise that he downplays anything resembling a black agenda.


He doesn't need to talk about it. He just needs to be about it. Otherwise, any talk from him, Smiley or anyone else is just noise.

- Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Md.

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