Tracey Bruno was fired up and looking for some answers on Saturday when she entered the cavernous convocation center of Chicago State University to hear Tavis Smiley's much-publicized panel about the black agenda.
But all she got was talk, she said.
"When you have these panel discussions, there is nothing concrete, like you can do A, B, C and D,'' said Bruno, 45, who lives in Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago, and who works as a jobs counselor. "Everybody talks about what's going on and the things that aren't working, but what can we do? What can the everyday person do? We know what the leaders can do.''
"We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda'' was organized to discuss President Barack Obama's lack of a black agenda and featured 12 African-American leaders as panelists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, professors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, and Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux.
Smiley, a TV and radio host who is a frequent critic of some of President Barack Obama's policies, says Obama needs to address a black agenda. It is necessary, he says, because black unemployment is nearly twice that of whites and housing foreclosures have hit the black community the hardest, among other reasons. The president should not be afraid to openly champion such an agenda, said a number of the speakers on Saturday. The message was punctuated by an exclamation point because it was held in the president's adopted hometown.
"Don't you know [Chicago Mayor] Harold Washington said, 'Because I love black folk doesn't mean I hate anybody else,'" former Chicago Alderman Dorothy Tilllman, a panelist, asked as if the president were in the room, drawing rousing applause from the crowd.
Donnell Sanderfer, 59, an attendee from Phoenix, Ill., south of Chicago, was one of the people shouting from the rafters as panelists urged President Obama to do more for blacks. He voted for him in 2008, but now Sanderfer expresses buyer's remorse.
"I voted for him, and I would fight you if you said you weren't going to vote for him,'' Sanderfer said. "I'm not going to be happy if things stay the same. The economy is getting worse and black people are suffering. I'm suffering. The president is afraid if he helps black people he's going to be called a racist. But do white people care about us? White people don't care.''
Sanderfer's was a point that was echoed throughout the day from panelists and attendees alike. But all African Americans do not agree that President Obama should do more for blacks. Obama does not agree either. He has argued that the economic job and stimulus programs he has put into motion will help everyone. The president's response and that of other black leaders defending his approach spurred Smiley to convene the panel.
Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, acknowledged during the discussion that he had kept a low profile and avoided speaking out during Obama's presidential campaign so as not to damage the candidate's chances during the racially charged contest. He argued that because 97 percent African Americans voted for Obama, the president should pay attention to the needs of the black community.
"I think he's brilliant and has fresh ideas, but I was under no illusion that if he became president, he could change black suffering,'' Farrakhan said. "When you sit in that seat … you feel the forces that surround power … President Obama does not run this country. He has been chosen to run white affairs … If we get something, it's because we organized and forced the government to speak to our needs.''
"Everybody's always fired up, but they never tell you how to do anything,'' she said.
Isaac Hayes, a Republican candidate for Congress who grew up near the president's former stomping ground on the South Side of Chicago, agreed. He said people need directions on how to bring about change because many have reaped the benefits of the civil rights movement. They do not know how to fight for change.
"They could have benefited from a Republican voice on the panel like Michael Steele [chairman of the Republican National Committee],'' Hayes said. "We have different approaches to problem solving. It's not about big government throwing money at a problem. It's about shaking things up.''
For his part, Smiley was pleased to start the conversation about whether there is a need for a black agenda in America.
"For me the mission has been accomplished in terms of raising these political issues and putting them on the table for discussion in black America, in Washington and inside the White House,'' Smiley, flanked by panelists, said at a news conference after the event.
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.