Why Smiley and Sharpton are both right about racial politics

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When talk show host Tavis Smiley announced his plans for the “We Count!: The Black Agenda is the American Agenda” conference in Chicago two weeks ago, it touched off another round of internecine sniping among African-American “leaders.”

Leading the charge against Smiley’s efforts to push President Obama to develop a “specific agenda for black people” has been the Reverend Al Sharpton. Given the celebrity status of these two men, it is not surprising that countless journalists, bloggers, and television pundits have weighed in on their contretemps over the past two weeks. What is surprising is that none of these accounts has pointed to the fact that both men are fundamentally right about their assessments of racial politics in the Age of Obama.

Mr. Smiley is correct in asserting that the glaring disparities that plague African-Americans should be at the top of any president’s agenda for moral reasons. After all, there is clear evidence that these racial gaps in the areas of employment, education, income, and healthcare are a legacy of the Jim Crow system. He is also correct in asserting that any president (white, black, or purple) who sits in the White House in large part because of the turnout of African-American voters in swing states should have substantive agenda to address these disparities. Finally, history clearly vindicates Mr. Smiley’s position that African-Americans have never gotten anything from any president without vigorously pressing their agenda through bare-knuckle politics. The classic example of this model came in the 1948 presidential election, when the NAACP and other black organizations were able to push President Truman to desegregate the U.S. military by threatening to endorse Henry Wallace’s bid for the White House on the Progressive Party’s ticket.

Reverend Sharpton, who for more than two decades has been one of the leading practitioners of the bare-knuckle style of politics, is also on solid ground. He was spot on when he asserted that most of the civil rights establishment had gone to sleep in the Clinton years. Exactly what policies did President Clinton put in place to deserve the adoration of the African-American community — “Mend It, Don’t End,” Welfare “Reform,” the Crime Bill of 1994? Thus, it is easy to see why Reverend Sharpton, who finally has the status of an insider on matters of race and policy, is so quick to point out what he sees as a “double standard.”

Although Reverend Sharpton referenced the importance of representing “constituencies” merely to make the dubious assertion that he has followers and Mr. Smiley does not, there is no doubt that the key issue in the debate between the two men is what rank-and-file voters want. President Obama’s approval ratings in the African-American community continue to soar above 90 percent. Moreover, these same polls also show that President Obama’s election has made African-Americans optimistic about the trajectory of race relations for the first time in the history of modern survey research. Finally, a few studies have also found that African-Americans are both fundamentally confused about how the legacy of Jim Crow continues to shape their life chances in America – and less likely to see the world through the lens of racial group membership than in previous epochs. These dynamics suggest that Reverend Sharpton — always an excellent diviner of public opinion in the community — will continue to have the upper hand in this debate within the African-American community.

This does not mean, however, that Mr. Smiley is wrongheaded in his desire to push the conversation about policy and representation to a new level. What it does mean, sadly, is that the current structure of racial inequality is likely to stay intact. This is so because we know from mountains of data that the largely race neutral approach to public policy that President Obama has borrowed from the playbooks of his most recent Democratic predecessors has failed to move the ball forward in terms of promoting racial equality. Until African-Americans throw off the guilt about their condition that 30 years of race baiting in political campaigns has generated, and realize that votes should translate into actual substantive representation, there is little hope of holding any Democratic president “accountable” to a “Black Agenda.”