Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy recently penned an opinion piece for CNN entitled "Why Obama's Black Critics Are Wrong." He contends that President Obama's African-American critics have focused on his "racial bona fides" and that "throughout President Barack Obama's political career, he has been dogged by … accusations that he is not 'black enough.' " I respect Kennedy and appreciate his contributions to scholarship, but in this instance his analysis is unsupported by the data.
There is a very troubling pattern developing within certain segments of the African-American community, a concerted effort to silence those who are offering honest, valid and well-thought-out criticism of the Obama administration. Kennedy has joined a growing number of African Americans, such as radio hosts Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey and professor Melissa Harris-Perry, who are more focused on personal sentiment than policy.
African Americans can ill afford to base their analysis of President Obama on the politics of sentiment. Like every other political constituency, we must stay focused on policy outcomes that work to further the best interests of the African-American community. We should not have permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
In his article, Kennedy attempts to compare race-based taunts that Obama isn't "really" black, made by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes as they were battling Obama in elections, to Rep. Maxine Waters' (D-Calif.) admonishment of the president for failing to craft policies that explicitly target black unemployment. Kennedy is comparing personal attacks made during a heated state campaign to a demand by a member of Congress that the president support targeted national legislation that would assist individuals disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn.
Waters and others like her are doing their jobs as elected representatives in Congress. That's not the same as over-the-top campaign rhetoric. Trying to draw similarities between the two is not comparing apples and oranges; it's more like comparing apples and automobiles.
Kennedy attributes the critiques of President Obama to "a special anxiety about the loyalties of high [African-American] achievers, especially when their success is largely dependent on whites and others who are not black." He fails to explore the possibility that these critiques of President Obama are not comparing him with some abstract standard. In most instances, this "anxiety" is based upon a comparison of Obama with Obama.
Candidate Obama pledged to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, to fight for the public option, to end the Bush-era tax cuts and to give America "change we can believe in." Instead, many blacks are now seeing that the more things change, the more they look like George W. Bush.
This is not, as Kennedy states, a claim from fellow blacks that he is "selling out" the race. This reality is what caused Princeton professor Cornell West to opine that President Obama is "another black mascot" of "banksters" and "Wall Street oligarchs." This is not to say that West is completely correct — or even polite — but his analysis has merit and is worthy of further debate.
Kennedy writes, "The great bulk of black American voters — upward of 90% — supported Obama in 2008 and do so today." He might want to reconsider this point based upon more recent data from the Washington Post that states, "New cracks have begun to show in President Obama's support amongst African Americans … Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held 'strongly favorable' views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent."
Finally, Kennedy writes, African Americans support Obama "because of his party affiliation, his liberal policy preferences, his identification with the African-American community … his personal attractiveness — he is uncommonly articulate, handsome, knowledgeable and gracious — and the fact that with all of the added burdens attendant to his blackness, he was still able to climb the Mount Everest of American politics."
Contrast Kennedy's assessment of the African-American community's support with how President Obama has demonstrated his solidarity with the Hispanic community. He nominated the first Hispanic female Supreme Court justice. He has supported the Latino community's call for comprehensive immigration reform.
He demonstrated his support to the gay and lesbian community by ending the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. To signal his support for women and feminists, he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Even as the tide shifts in the Middle East, the Obama administration continues to provide unambiguous support to Zionist interests in America. These are real policy outcomes, not abstract political sentiments.
Here are some real data for Kennedy and others to consider. The economy started its most recent decline during the administration of George W. Bush. African-American households lost more than half their wealth between 2005 and 2009. If these same "black detractors," as Kennedy describes them, were not wrong to criticize President Bush, why should we sit idly by as the situation grows worse under President Obama? Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, recently said, "If [former President] Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House."
When you support a politician by ignoring the issues you care about and do not hold him or her accountable for what was promised, you get a predictable outcome. You get the failure to address unemployment rates of 18 percent in your community — and silence about who should be doing something about it.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer-host of the national talk radio show Inside the Issues With Wilmer Leon and a teaching associate in political science at Howard University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.