Grading on the Curve

Grading on the Curve

By Ruben Navarrette - March 24, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Just when you thought race relations couldn't get more interesting, we learn that -- for some African-Americans -- a black president is a mixed blessing.

My old friend Tavis Smiley has criticized President Obama for not having a "black agenda" and scolded establishment black leaders for not seeming to care. This earned Smiley a dressing down by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Unbowed, the PBS host recently convened a symposium at Chicago State University to ask whether the nation's first African-American president ought to have a "black agenda." Smiley wants to know why the NAACP, the National Urban League, Sharpton's National Action Network and other organizations give Obama a pass for not tending to black issues.

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have also criticized Obama. John Conyers, D-Mich., the House Judiciary Committee chairman, recently told Politico that White House officials are "not listening" to black lawmakers.

Yet Smiley's critics dismiss his concerns and say this flap is mainly about ego.

It's about much more than that. And it's not about Obama. He isn't the president of black America. He's the president of the United States of America. It's really about those so-called black leaders who are gambling with their credibility. What happens when Obama is out of office, and they return to the White House with the same old list of demands? Who will take them seriously then? Who does now?

How ironic. Obama was marketed as "post-racial." Now, some African-Americans worry that Obama is so post-racial that he won't embrace a "black agenda" as have other presidents.

Consider Bill Clinton. During his administration, African-Americans were appointed to numerous Cabinet posts, had a seat at the table for every major policy discussion, and served as the focal point for the White House initiative -- "One America, a National Conversation on Race, Ethnicity and Culture."

Consider George W. Bush. He pushed through No Child Left Behind, which requires schools to separate testing data by race so we can see how African-American children are often victimized by -- in Bush's words -- the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Predominantly white teachers unions despise the law, but the NAACP supports it.

Smiley and Co. aren't demanding that Obama clear his desk and just concentrate on African-Americans. All they want is for Obama to carve out a sliver of his domestic agenda and focus on what a president -- any president -- can do to uplift, empower and improve the lot of the African-American community because it often has the greatest need.

I would have him start by renouncing those elements of liberalism that teach African-Americans to be dependent on government, and be eternally grateful to the same people who are disabling them. But that's just me.

Obama's critics would be satisfied with more attention to black unemployment, which stands at 15.8 percent, compared to the national average of 9.7 percent. For African-Americans between 16 and 24, the unemployment figure is three times higher at 48 percent.

If the president were white, African-American leaders would be calling this a crisis and demanding targeted relief. In responding to his critics, Obama insists that when the economy and the educational system improve, African-Americans will benefit along with everyone else.

Yet the activists also point out that when other special interest groups -- farmers, teachers, labor, senior citizens, etc. -- step forward and demand attention from Obama to their issues and concerns, no one makes a peep about it. But when African-Americans ask more from Obama, they're somehow seen as gluttonous, as if the country is saying: "You have a black president. What more do you want?"

Quite a bit, says Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who participated in the Smiley event. Dyson thinks the whole issue of race represents a teaching moment, but professor Obama refuses to go to class.

"Latinos asked for something, and they got something," Dyson told the crowd. "Gays and lesbians said: 'Don't ask, don't tell, change it.' Our Jewish brothers and sisters said, 'Deal with Israel,' you deal with them. Why is it ... when it comes to black folks, you are suddenly persona non grata?''

For his part, Smiley doesn't think that black leaders are doing Obama any favors by grading him on the curve.

"Great presidents are not born," Smiley told The Chicago Sun-Times, "they have to be made. They have to be pushed."

Keep pushing, friend.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter