Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What's Really Required of Progressive African American Leadership in a Time of Global Crisis

Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou


An excellent piece and right on target. This is what is known as a clear-minded, mature, and politically sophisticated critical analysis of what the real issues are in this entire very important public debate, and why only a genuine critique informed by a disciplined commitment to alternative ideas-- and most importantly an organized grassroots and mass-based social movement-- can seriously address and resolve the problems that we all face on a national level--no matter who the President is at any given time...


Cornel West and the Crisis in Black Leadership
By Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
23 May 2011
Fellowship of Reconciliation

The recent controversy ignited by Cornel West’s critique of President Barack Obama and subsequent critiques of Dr. West reveal a fundamental crisis in black leadership. Traditionally, African-American intellectuals and activists have encountered the office of the president as outsiders with a nuanced understanding and repertoire of tactics including electoral brokerage, inside strategy, and social protest (organized and rhetorical).

These tactics have been executed against “The White Man.” The oppositional politic was the normative means of encountering the office of the presidency and the deployment of fierce rhetoric was an accepted means of public engagement. Both the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama are a disruption of that rhetorical and tactical tradition. The African-American tradition of speaking truth to power has been complicated because that power is now embodied by “A Black Man.”

This is a unique moment in American democracy. The white supremacist gaze in the United States demonized black bodies, subjected their intelligence, and interrogated their national allegiance. Barack Obama’s winning campaign called into question these deep-seated notions that shaped U.S. public policy and perceptions.

Hence, the Obama presidency is an electoral and existential victory. The way in which African-American people make meaning for themselves inside the American empire has been recast. There is a widely-accepted narrative about Obama’s election. While it is true that his presence in the White House is because of his intelligence, effective fundraising apparatus, and sophisticated campaign machinery, the red carpets at the inaugural balls were soaked in the blood of martyrs.

The presidency of Barack Obama is a by-product of African Americans’ 400 years of struggle for access to the democratic project called America. The president has often located himself in that tradition and trajectory. He has strategically trafficked in the prophetic rhetoric of the civil rights movement and employed the homiletical rhythms of the Black Church. He has conveniently used these cultural signifiers in a way that is titillating to the national consciousness—linguistically embodying black folks’ quest for a more democratic society.

Moreover, black folks take great pride in the presence of three generations of African Americans in the White House. The real image of a beautiful black family beaming into the homes of all Americans has a deep impact on the psyche of the nation, and a denigrated people. There is a collective desire on the part of black America to protect and shield their existential idol-President Barack Hussein Obama. This is a new space in U.S. history—racial and collective national memory. The right-wing backlash, contemptible treatment, and flat-out disrespect consistently directed at the President and First Lady only serve to reinforce this protective existential and racial logic.

However, there is a counterpoint to this protectionist logic. Based on the criterion set forth by the African-American freedom struggle, there is an expectation beyond physical and psychic symbolism. Behind the ad hominem attacks, personal slights, and blogosphere punditry, what is at stake in West’s complaint is this prophetic expectation—there must be public policy to reflect the very tradition that the president uses and benefited from in his rise to power. Is it inappropriate to have this expectation of the President Barack Obama? Is it appropriate for black folks to levy a critique and action against a black man in the White House? Or must black leadership focus on defending the president from racist attacks?

The protectionist logic combined with the ultra-conservative Republican Party has circumscribed the political vision of the vast majority of African Americans. The logic goes that criticism of the president is tantamount to supporting ultra-conservative politics. Regardless of his legislative record, African Americans will vote for him in record numbers. This electoral allegiance is not a negotiating tool, but, rather, an existential duty. The protectionists cheapen any critical conversation about the president’s agenda. The only legitimate engagement is an insider strategy—access to the White House and supporting the administration’s agenda at all cost. Accordingly, organized and rhetorical protests are, vehemently, dismissed. In this formulation, the aforementioned questions and West’s lamentation remain unanswered.

The improvised electoral options guarantee that the president will not have to provide any substantive policy response to underemployment, unemployment, foreclosures, affordable healthcare, quality public education, expanding prison-industrial complex, and affordable housing—all of which affect African Americans, disproportionately. This makes him no different than any other president. Hence, he should be treated as such.

Every president since Abraham Lincoln has had to contend with an organized and rhetorical protest—the prophetic tradition. This tradition has always focused on the nation’s treatment of the most vulnerable citizens—the least of these. Under the prophetic gaze, politicians have either been celebrated or rebuked. Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists supported the Underground Railroad and offered stern public rebukes of Abraham Lincoln for not ending slavery. A. Philip Randolph and the broader labor movement marched and chastised Franklin D. Roosevelt until the creation of the New Deal. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement pressured and protested the Kennedy and Johnson administration into the passage of civil rights and the Great Society legislation.

King once remarked that electoral politics are thermometers—measuring political climate; social protests and movements are thermostats—setting political climate. Organized and rhetorical protests have set the climate for an effective insider strategy and subsequent electoral allegiance in the voting booth. Prophetic rhetoric and organized rage have created the context for the passage of public policy that improves the quality of life for the least of these. The contemporary political climate is such that there are very limited possibilities for progressive social policies to emerge from the administration, itself. A recalcitrant Congress, a right-of-center Democratic Party, and two decades of neoliberal policies require that the president serve a right-of-center agenda which has been at odds with the prophetic tradition and the needs of the most vulnerable.

Hence, African-American leadership can not go it alone. The challenges facing democracy are nothing less that the retraction of the promise of the civil rights movement, dismantling of the Great Society, and reversal of the New Deal—let alone an ever-expanding prison- and military-industrial complex. Cornel West’s critique is part and parcel of a grand tradition of fiery prophetic rhetoric that must be connected to social movements. In order to shift the political discourse and create the conditions for progressive policy, a new multi-racial and multi-issue coalition has to emerge. Rhetorical protest must be matched with mass organizing.

Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a Freeman Fellow of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR-USA). This article was originally published on May 20, 2011 on “the feministwire” and is being cross-posted in various ally communities for wider distribution.

Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou's blog:


Here is still more CLARITY and DEPTH in this very important national debate...


Dr. Cornel West

by Greg L
May 19, 2011
The African American Clarion Call

I’ve been on a bit of hiatus from my blog, in part due to work and in part to just taking a bit of a break. I rarely run out of things to say, but sometimes one has to do more listening and reading than “saying” and I find that’s good to do exclusively on occasion to gain some perspective.

It looks like we’ve got a fight brewing between the president and Princeton professor Cornell West over Obama’s credentials as a black man and West taking personal affront to being not respected. This really isn’t new as West has been having issues with Obama since shortly after his inauguration. In my view, some of the heat Obama is taking from West is to be dismissed while he has legitimate points on others.

First, let’s deal with that which should be dismissed. West asserts that Obama’s background is such that he’s more comfortable dealing with elite whites than he is dealing with “free black men”. Presumably, West counts himself among those who are free black men. I think it would be impossible for Obama to have become president with the support among the elite if he wasn’t comfortable moving in those circles. The converse is also true; that’s to say that there must also be a comfort level with him felt by the elite players. Based on our existing political structure in this country, pretty much anyone who ascends to the presidency has to meet that particular criteria and that’s the primary reason why many of the people who’ve been in that office are a product of the nation’s elite educational institutions and organizations. I’d imagine that West himself would have had to meet similar criteria in his experiences at Harvard and Princeton. So this criticism is pretty much a cheap shot way of calling Obama an Uncle Tom and I really think it can and should be dismissed as such.

But once one gets past that, there is a substantive critique of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies, particularly those domestic policies revolving around the financial crisis. On the latter, West suggests that Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of the corporate plutocrats.” Again, the reference to Obama being a black mascot clouds the issue and smacks of calling him an Uncle Tom, so I reject that part of the statement, but I find myself in agreement with the concept that Obama is very much a captive of the oligarchs. Rather than using this crisis to pursue much needed reforms, punishment of those who caused the problems and actually break the hold they have on the economy, Obama and his economic team have instead pursued accommodative policies that delay the inevitable day of reckoning. Rather than bringing the change on this front that everyone hoped for, we gotten a milquetoast response to a true crisis that really hasn’t ended. It’s only been ameliorated by delaying the day of reckoning.

On the foreign policy front, we’ve largely seen a continuation and expansion of the Bush policies. The war front has been expanded in Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan and the sorts of things that have always gone on in pursuit of Pax Americana abroad continue unabated. Drone attacks have been expanded, Guantanamo remains open, domestic spying continues unabated and you can’t travel without getting groped and felt on. He continues the Bush policy of “exporting” democracy in the middle east as a tool for regime change while standing down on regime change for the tyrants that happen to be our “friends”. On the so called war on terror, the doctrines of Obama and Bush are virtually indistinguishable. That’s certainly not the change that many voted for and West’s critique here is spot on.

What we have here is a right wing democrat and rather than promoting change, Obama is more concerned with continuing the status quo. To be honest, I don’t think that he could have done anything else as that’s the nature of our political system. The system has swung towards fascism and political behavior across the board has been shaped towards that end. As that idea dawns on more people, there will be a backlash. You can’t sell everyone change and then bring none of it. That’s not to suggest that any of this would have been easy, so the fact that he hasn’t brought substantive change is really not the issue. The issue revolves around the failure to fight for it and to represent the interests of the people. West’s indictment against Obama here as well is spot on.

Personally, what I look for in a leader is the ability to speak the unvarnished truth, regardless of how controversial and painful it may be. This is what the country urgently needs and truth is the only premise upon which a true solution can be formulated. One can’t just hold his finger to the wind and do the political calculus as a condition of telling it. One has to have the courage to tell it, no matter the outcome or the controversy that may attend it and not cower in fear because of what Fox News is going to say. The Shirley Sherrod affair was instructive on Obama’s fears and lack of backbone.

For a fleeting moment, many believed that change was possible. It’s becoming clear that Obama sold what he has never attempted to deliver. It will be very hard for the next fresh face who comes along promising the sky to be believed as this is the last hurrah for hope and change.


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