Can the GOP use the Black Caucus against Obama?

OPINION - As the race for the White House heats up, we can surely expect to see the CBC used as a pawn in the hands of Republican opportunists...

The Congressional Black Caucus held its 41st Annual Legislative Conference last week, culminating in an elegant gala with some of the best and brightest within the African-American community in attendance. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle arrived ahead of the special Phoenix Awards being given to four honorees: the World Champion Boxer and Humanitarian George Foreman; Lisa Jackson, the first African-American Director of the Environmental Protection Agency; civil rights activist Dr. Joseph E. Lowery; and legendary Congressman John Lewis.

By all accounts, it was a night to celebrate the African-American journey. President Obama’s speech reaffirmed his commitment to the black community and called for CBC support as he embarks upon his latest legislative jobs proposal, addressing systemic unemployment and economic malaise. Yet somehow, the mainstream press coverage told a different story.

The leading Associated Press report transcribed the president’s speech in such a way, as to translate his words into Ebonics. Headlines read: “Obama Tells Blacks: Stop Complain’, Stop Grumblin’, Stop Cryin’.” It appears the spell-check function at major journalistic organizations have failed alongside consumer confidence in the financial markets. As the gridlock brought to Congress by the Republican majority last November inches toward the possibility of another government shutdown, it appears the Tea Party insurgents aren’t the only enemy behind the line.

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A recent video advert released by Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, reveals how it easy it for the GOP, their allies and even like-minded conservative journalists, to manipulate images of African-Americans for their own political ends. The rewrite of Obama’s speech is only the latest example of shrewd, false advertising.

And as the race for the White House heats up, we can surely expect to see the CBC used as a pawn in the hands of Republican opportunists, intent upon undermining Obama’s legacy and limiting his chances: revising history and twisting positive stories of black empowerment into tall tales of a broken and divided community.

To be fair, some prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been critical of the president’s approach to his Republican opposition. Most liberals, regardless of race, have felt disillusioned by what appeared to be Obama’s willingness to compromise, instead of waging fights in support of the Democratic agenda.

This began with the White House abandoning the public option during the health care reform negotiations, continued with the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, and worsened during the debt ceiling debacle. In recent months, as unemployment continued to soar in the black community, the Congressional Black Caucus responded by organizing national job fairs aimed specifically at addressing black joblessness.

Maxine Waters and CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver became more vocal in their call for presidential action: demanding that Obama specifically address the economic ills disproportionately affecting African-Americans.

As with most matters in political economy, there has been varying degrees of disagreement: with most blacks sympathetic to the president’s position: fully recognizing the burden he inherited with the weakened economy, as well as the challenge of being responsible for all communities, despite his obvious connection to the black community.
The address at the Congressional Black Caucus was read by some as Obama’s answer to his critics, though as a member of the wildly enthusiastic audience, it was clear from my vantage point that the message was well received, and the messenger happily embraced.

True to form, a largely African-American affair took on the fervor of a traditional church gathering, and the energy from the stage as the president spoke resembled a fiery pulpit address. Our language, spoken in a way that resonates, brought together past with present and faith with hope. The call to “stop complaining” was less a scolding of any critic, and more a personal admittance that he himself did not have time to complain when there was so much work to be done. As such, while speaking to those most loyal to him, Obama essentially asked for familial support, in a common struggle against a common opponent.

But in the world of politics and news headlines, nothing is ever that simple.

Republicans waged war to win back the White House the day President Obama was inaugurated, and they have not given up. Everyday a new weapon: from headlines to commercials to Fox News pundits or conservative radio hosts, the game never ends. The GOP have shown themselves willing to use any resource at their disposal.

Race-baiting has been the most insidious, and has largely been the tactic of the Tea Party ‘fringe’. This allowed the Republican establishment to distance themselves when necessary, while still reaping the benefits of any political damage done to Obama.

Romney’s latest campaign advert shows they will go as far as to exploit black unemployment numbers and CBC rhetoric in the same deceptive ways. It is clear from the recent Republican Presidential debates that this party and its candidates could care less about the African-American community. Their main organizing principle has been to protect the interests of big oil, big business, multi-millionaires and billionaire donors.

At a time when a real focus on economic policy is necessary, the American middle-class is shrinking, and thousands more struggling in poverty, the Republican establishment is attacking the president’s new jobs proposals and refusing to be open minded. Mitt Romney’s statement “Corporations are people, my friend,” summarizes who he believes is most important when shaping government policy. How strange then, that his campaign ad attacking the president, features images of African-Americans attending a jobs fair organized by the Democratic Congressional Black Caucus?

CBC leaders are free to criticize their president, and it is their sworn duty to represent their constituency and hold the White House accountable. But when they do, it will certainly become fodder for the Republican attack machine against President Obama. And as the coverage of the CBC events this weekend proves, anything we say, can and will be used against us.

The Congressional Black Caucus is the most powerful voice for policies affecting the African-American community. By driving a wedge between the nation’s first African-American president and his most loyal base supporters, the GOP intend to divide and conquer. The most vulnerable may not recognize the nuance inherent in misleading headlines and deceptive campaign ads which use half-truths to discourage voters, immobilize Obama’s supporters and stall Democratic momentum.

It seems serendipitous, therefore, that the griot is a West African storyteller, passing our history and traditions down from one to another, in our own words, encapsulating our own self-image: protecting our truth against the lies of our enemies. The days of allowing others to tell our stories are over.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.