I knew the long-simmering debate among blacks over what President Barack Obama should be doing for blacks — his strongest backers and the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency — would heat up. It turned red hot last week when a war of words broke out on Tom Joyner's nationally syndicated radio show between two of this country's leading black activists. In dueling appearances on Joyner's program, Tavis Smiley and the Rev. Al Sharpton went after each other in a way that would make would make Quentin Tarantino blush.
"Some of us who call ourselves black leaders are making the wrong choice. The president doesn't need a black agenda, they sing. He's not the president of black America. He's the president of all America, and he need not focus specifically on the unique challenges black America is facing," Smiley said of Sharpton and several other civil rights leaders who met with Obama to discuss the jobs bill that was being considered by Congress.
Sharpton disputed Smiley's characterization of that meeting. He said he met with Obama to deal with unemployment and its lopsided impact on blacks. "We did not ask for a race bill because we did not think it would pass. We asked for a 'place bill,' where the jobs would go to where the people were most impacted," he said. Then Sharpton lobbed this brickbat: "When they were running around buck dancing for Bill Clinton they didn't ask for a black agenda," he said in a slap at Smiley, whom he accused of being a sycophant of the former president.
This is a senseless fight. Most black leaders, including Smiley, don't expect Obama to behave like Putney Swope (the black character in a film by the same name who takes control of a white-run advertising agency and imposes his black agenda on the firm).
They don't want him to act like some fear a consciously black president might. They don't expect loud pronouncements from Obama about what his administration is doing for blacks. But they also don't want him to be insensitive to problems that have a disparate impact on black people. What they do want is a go-to person on his staff to address their concerns.
Of course, Obama isn't the president of any one group of Americans. But to offer that as a reason for not focusing on the high black unemployment rate when his administration has made a targeted effort to address the concerns gays and lesbians have about the military's "don't ask, don't tell," seems like a policy that penalizes blacks for being black.
Obama has to act before the divisions harden between his black supporters and detractors. The infighting among these activists will only intensify if he doesn't find a way to salve the wounds of those who think he courted black voters during his presidential campaign and then abandoned them once he got into the Oval Office.
This is something he needs to do soon — before his political base implodes.