My grandmother was a simple woman. She took her coffee sweet and black, silky like her skin. She loved her God, Cardinal baseball, and butterscotch candy — though not always in that order. There was nothing she despised more than a thief and a liar, except what she called “back fence talk.”
Grandma Alice didn’t like gossips. She had little patience for people who put their own or anybody else’s dirty laundry in the street. That sense of privacy ran so deeply that we didn’t know Alice had given birth to seven children, not three, and that four had not survived birth or early childhood. Alice was raised in Sugar Ditch, a section of Tunica County, Mississippi. It was there that she learned to “keep your business to yourself” and not to speak ill of other folk — especially black folk, especially not outside of your community.
That code of silence extends back to slave era America, when the ability to keep secrets often meant the difference between life and death. Some believe that to openly criticize other African-Americans is the lowest form of intra-racial betrayal. We have ugly names for the wayward. “Uncle Tom”, “sell-out” and “handkerchief head Negro” come to mind. My grandmother never used words like that, but she certainly believed in “circling the wagons.”
Professor Cornel West and activist Tavis Smiley got a taste of that recently when they openly attacked President Obama’s economic policy and commitment to the nation’s poor. Their Poverty Tour was met with widespread derision from many African-Americans who charged that they were simply ego-tripping over personal issues they had with the president. Maybe so, but right or wrong, public criticism of this president is often met with disdain. The general response is that President Obama is the president for all of America, not just black people. In his defense, many are quick to say he doesn’t owe us anything.
What choice do we have, after all? Many believe that speaking negatively about the Obama administration’s policies will weaken his ability to win re-election and plays into the hands of his GOP opponents. Who can he depend on if we will not stand up for him? Certainly not the so-called “professional left”. White progressives have made their dissatisfaction widely known. If we don’t have his back, who will?
California Congresswoman Maxine Waters found out firsthand what happens when you express frustration with this president’s priorities and policies. She admitted in an interview circling the Internet that many Obama supporters in the African-American community have shown little patience for politicians who don’t stand with the president all of the time. Her frustration, and that of the Congressional Black Caucus, is clear. The media flocked to her side, eager to hear her cast aspersions on President Obama. For the most part, black America let out a collective sigh. “Oh, Maxine,” you could almost hear them say.
But, where is the line? How can we hold this president accountable on issues specific to African-Americans and others who are disproportionately impacted by the faltering economy? When can we ask him about skyrocketing unemployment among young black men, the extraordinary wealth gap and the destruction of the black middle class. When can we ask him about cuts in low-income energy assistants grants? When is it okay to ask about the disappearing social safety net? Does Congress deserve all of the blame?
The better (and harder) question is would we treat this president differently, would we hold him to a different standard if he were white?
It’s in our nature to be defensive of others who share our skin. Our history tells us that there is great danger in casting our lot with those who don’t have the interest of African-Americans at heart. Hell, there are enough open-air bigots who get their daily pleasure from trying to de-legitimize this president. There are one too many Allen Wests is the world willing say and do anything to for political gain.
Likening himself to a modern day Harriet Tubman, Rep. West said ”…the Democrat party has forever taken the black vote for granted, and you have established certain black leaders who are nothing more than the overseers of that plantation.”
“And now the people on that plantation are upset because they’ve been disregarded, disrespected and their concerns are not cared about.”
During an appearance on Fox News, Rep. West said black Democrats have failed to address high unemployment in the black community and continue to take black votes for granted come election time. You may never hear me say this again in this lifetime, but Rep. West has a point. Harriet Tubman he isn’t and, despite what he might tell you, he has little or no credibility among African-Americans. However, the notion that African-Americans will continue voting Democratic and will support this president no matter their personal economic challenges is not in dispute.
Rep. West won’t be “leading people away from the [democrat] plantation” anytime soon. There is no evidence that black people will follow him to out to the parking lot, let alone into the republican party.
While the president’s approval rating sank to 39 percent overall, according to the most recent Gallup poll, 85 percent of African-Americans still believe in him. If given a choice between standing with the president and siding with so-called Tea Party Patriots, black America will choose this president every time.
Grandma Alice would say, “He ain’t perfect, but he’s ours.”