My grandmom used to say, “It is not always what you say, but how you say it that counts.” I agree.
I made this exact point on Thursday directly to Dr. Cornel West during our WEB Du Bois panel discussion at the 2011 National Association of Black Journalists convention in Philadelphia. The panel on the 2012 election was titled “Black in or Black out”
West was surprisingly receptive to my respectful, but firm, backhand that it is always welcome, appropriate and necessary to question our leaders in America – but there is a way in which we must go about doing so, particularly when that leader is the first black president of the United States.
As we all know, there has been a great and sometimes unpleasant debate since President Barack Obama took office as to whether or not it is “okay” for black leaders, activists, or journalists to “call Obama out” when it appears that he is not focused on the interests of his black constituents.
That is a false premise in my opinion.
The question is not whether we should call him out when he errs, but in what forum, manner and place we do so.
The debate reached a crescendo a few months ago when Princeton University professor and respected black activist Cornel West and radio-TV personality Tavis Smiley turned up the heat on Obama as to his “neglect” of the black agenda in America.
Professor West took it to a new level by calling the president a “black mascot” for Wall Street during a May panel discussion on “the black agenda”.
Others have been critical of the president as well, ranging from Professor Michael Eric Dyson to Bennett College president and economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux.
The problem has been that the black community has reacted viscerally to anyone who challenges the president, even if those doing so are well-respected black voices within our community.
I think this is silly and something that we as a people must not allow, because if we fail to hold this president to the same standards we have held others to, we will lose our moral authority to be critical of future presidents who neglect the “black agenda”.My point to Dr. West during our panel, which included Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Dr. West and Roland Martin (who moderated the panel,) was that our democratic republic demands that we challenge and question our leaders — there was unanimous agreement with this suggestion by all of the panelists.
But what I wanted to stress to Dr. West and to those reading this piece, is that as Atlanta Mayor Reed said, “those tough conversations are being had.” By that he meant that people around the president are speaking to him behind closed doors about what appears to be a double-standard when it comes to his willingness to address the special needs of gays, Hispanics and other special interests groups, but not when it comes to black America.
If you ask the White House how they feel about this, they will say “it ain’t so.”
The bottom line is this: It is good that we have black voices who are on the ground everyday and who see the pain that this recession and the economy are having on black Americans disproportionately; and who are willing to speak up and out about that pain. It is perfectly fine for Dr. West or Tavis Smiley to question the president, demand that he give blacks equal time as he does others, etc.
What is not okay is to call the president names, attack his character, and demean him as a man. The risk we run if we “debate” by using Ad hominem attacks like “black mascot” is that the “other side” then adopts such rhetoric and uses it to their political advantage.
Words matter, Dr. West, and we would all do well to have the necessary “come to Jesus” meetings with the president in the sanctity and security of those private, closed door, small group sessions where we can ensure that he is actually listening and responsive to what is being shared with him.