Drunk on beer summit, Urban League forgets real problems

If you want to know the condition of African Americans these days, get in a tangle with a police officer. That was the prevailing point of discussion yesterday, at the National Urban League's "State of Black America" forum in Chicago...

If you want to know the condition of African Americans these days, get in a tangle with a police officer. That was the prevailing point of discussion yesterday, at the National Urban League’s “State of Black America” forum in Chicago, which included as panelists: theGrio.com contributor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson, political commentator Jeff Johnson, National Urban League Policy Institute’s Stephanie Jones, MSNBC analyst Michelle Bernard, Schott Foundation president John Jackson and Kansas City Urban League president Gwendolyn Grant. It was moderated by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, fresh off the heels of her “Black in America pt. 2” news special, which aired a week ago.

And so here’s what was not discussed in the “State of Black America”: healthcare reform, unemployment, climate change, the foreclosure crisis — no housing talk despite the fact that the opening remarks for the forum were made by Shaun Donovan, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It was even more unfortunate that housing went unmentioned when just the day before, it was announced that all of Atlanta’s public housing would be officially demolished, a trend being closed in on in virtually every other major city with large black populations: New Orleans, D.C., Chicago, Pittsburgh and Houston. Harris-Lacewell brought up healthcare as a policy issue, but neither O’Brien nor the other panelists bit on it. And while the conversation finally turned to education at the end, there few minutes left at that point to explore it in-depth.

As for what they did discuss: Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley, President Barack Obama, racial profiling and beer. The so-called meeting between Gates, Crowley, the President and Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to happen a couple hours later, so what unfolded at the Urban League forum became something more akin to the “State of the Beer Summit.” Racial profiling is a concern for certain in black communities everywhere, and even in well-to-do places where only a few African Americans happen to live, like Gates’ Cambridge, MA. Hence, this was the overruling discourse at the forum. Dyson broke the ice and broke out the race card in his opening statement about the “brew-haha” at the White House. He spoke on how it wouldn’t get to the bottom of “what ales us.” Harris-Lacewell stated that the goal of any Gates-Crowley discussion should be “to move us back to a policy conversation,” so that it’s not the normal community-police dynamic of a “room full of white and black police officers and the community folks who are deeply disempowered.”

Johnson noted that he was “disappointed in the conversation at the White House,” and that Crowley’s background in conducting anti-racial-profiling trainings for police did not excuse a “structural” flaw in how police operate. “Cops are experts at police being taught on how to continue to disenfranchise us as their modus operandi, and claiming that this is decreasing crime,” said Johnson. But, “it’s not Obama’s job,” to fight racial profiling Johnson said. “It’s the job of the Urban League and the NAACP, who’ve done work for decades but have not gotten the proper support and resources that they need.”

The other panelists Jones, Bernard, and Jackson shared the sentiment that racial profiling is a much deeper issue than can be resolved over beer on a White House lawn, and all expressed concern over the many other black men and women who are racially harassed on a daily basis, but do not have Ivy League pedigrees, nor a personal friendship with the U.S. President to come save them. Still, the forum as a whole didn’t go much farther into black America’s problems than that. Even after Harris-Lacewell attempted to make the point that the Bill “Cosby thesis” (that education and good behavior will save African Americans) was disproved by the Gates episode, O’Brien said she didn’t think the Gates debate “is that deep.” Yet, with less than an hour for the six panelists, the discourse was never allowed to go below the surface.

Also troubling was the omnipresence of the logo of Wells Fargo, the real estate lenders who were just exposed in June for targeting sub-prime mortgages at vulnerable black families, while certain officials referred to African Americans as “mud people” taking out “ghetto loans.” Wells Fargo sponsored the “State of black America” panel, but in many ways they are actually the sponsors of the distressed state of African Americans. Neither the irony of this, nor the tragedy of record high black homelessness and unemployment right now could compete for time with the Gates-police tiff – nor could the health of black America. Harris-Lacewell, who early in the forum said, “None of us are talking about the Blue Dog Democrats in states like Louisiana and what they are doing to hold up healthcare reform. Instead, we’re talking about beer at the White House.”