Friday, March 19, 2010

Black Elites' Increasingly Public Rift on President Obama: What Does it Mean?

When President Obama was candidate Obama one question that preoccupied many black intellectuals was whether his candidacy or eventual presidency would be good for the blacks.  Notwithstanding the tremendous amount of progress that African Americans have made in the last 50 years, experts who work in this area will tell you that African Americans lag whites in almost all areas of socio-economic well-being.  The question among black elites was : (a) whether candidate Obama should be viewed as just another politician and thus should be made to compete for the votes of black voters by stating explicitly what he would do to help narrow the myriad equality gaps  or (b) whether the tantalizing prospect of a black man becoming President of the United States was so significant that all black people should simply get in line and vote.  Black people did get in line and vote in overwhelming numbers and the question was trampled by the euphoria of having a black family in the White House. But now the dissension among the black elites is back and it is becoming increasingly public.

The discussion became heated with this less public disagreement between Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton (see also here and here see also this very interesting Wall Street Journal piece by Peter Wallsten on the relationship between Sharton and Obama).  It has become fully public with an appearance by Mr.Smiley on CNN and news articles in the mainstream press including this article today in the Washington Post by Michael Fletcher and Hamil Harris raising the question whether the President has been sufficiently responsive to the black community.  In addition to all of this, there has been some apparent tension between the Congressional Black Caucus and the President (see, e.g., reports here and here, )

The question is whether this dispute has any legs.  Two points worth making here.  First, I have not yet seen evidence that Black people are significantly less enthused about the President.  In other words, this dispute has not filtered from the elites to the black electorate.  Basically, this means that the White House can continue to ignore this issue and continue to insist that the President is the chief executive for the whole country.

Second, both sides have a point here.  The Obama skeptics are right that black people in particular are disproportionately affected by inequality and the public policy response must also be disproportionate.  On the other hand, Obama supporters are right that notwithstanding the normative or descriptive point of the Obama skeptics, the President does not have the political capability to engage in public policy responses that disproportionately and explicitly benefit African Americans.

Is there a middle ground? Three possibilities come to mind.  First, Obama skeptics can convince us to treat the President like any other president.  While most black people would find ideological affinity with the President, because he is a Democrat, there would not be any racial affinity.  Black voters are simply an interest group among many that make-up the Democratic coalition.  The President is just another politician though one favored for ideological reasons.

A second possibility is to listen to black conservatives and to start voting for conservative politicians.  Thus, black voters would not be taken for granted by the Democrats, including black politicians.  The problem with this strategy of course is ideology.

Lastly, the President and his critics can agree on low-profile but meaningful public policy measures that could have a disproportionate impact on the black community. For example, the President can nominate more judges of color and more judges who are inclined to uphold civil rights laws and expand civil rights remedies.  These types of moves might make both sides happy because they really need one another.

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