“Black folks, in particular, get irritated,” says Johnson [Jeff Johnson, a black radio and TV political commentator], who travels the lecture circuit, hosts a half-hour show on Black Entertainment Television and has a weekly spot for social criticism on a radio program popular with black listeners. Get past “Obama the personality” and see “Obama the president,” he says. “Otherwise all you’re being is a political-celebrity groupie instead of a citizen. . . . It starts with acknowledging he’s my president, and not my homie.”
Johnson is one of a growing number of black academics, commentators and authors determined to press Obama on issues such as the elimination of racial profiling and the double-digit unemployment rate among blacks.
That’s what happened to Smiley [Tavis Smiley, a talk show host and author] last year, when he was the one in the commentator’s chair that Jeff Johnson now sits in on Tom Joyner’s syndicated morning radio program. During the heated Democratic primary, Smiley questioned Obama’s decision not to attend his annual State of the Black Union conference and said he hoped Obama would make it through the campaign “with his soul intact.”
The push-back was “brutal,” Smiley recalls. Angry listeners called him a “sellout,” an “Obama hater” and “Uncle Tom.” Surprised and hurt, Smiley left Joyner’s show but now uses the rough patch to make the case for a new book he co-wrote, “Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise.”
The book, Smiley’s third about issues facing black Americans, has a picture of Obama on the cover and outlines the president’s promises during the campaign to elevate the status of his fellow African Americans. Smiley wants readers to use the book as a tool to measure the new administration.
“I know what I’m up against,” he continues, because he is still accused of “casting aspersion on Barack Obama or having some issue with Barack Obama.”
What he is up against are people like Leutisha Stills, a regular blogger on the African American opinion site Jack and Jill Politics. She dismisses anything Smiley has to say about Obama because he is “always going negative.”
The Obama team has further complicated the critical discussion by deftly managing relationships with the constituencies it ignited during the campaign, providing access and information and defusing complaints before they become public battles. African Americans are one of the groups to whom the team has catered.
The president skipped schmoozing with the Washington press corps at the Gridiron Club last month, but he and the first lady hosted a reception in the State Dining Room for members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of black newspapers. The group recently named the Obama family its Newsmaker of the Year.
Obama also called black talk radio host Warren Ballentine’s show in late February to push his stimulus package. A couple of weeks later, the president appeared via satellite at Smiley’s State of the Black Union–the same conference he skipped last year.
Members of his team have also been working closely with leaders of black civil rights groups, such as Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, who praised Obama for committing more money to job training and summer youth employment programs in the stimulus package.
Political blogger Faye Anderson disagrees. “Black folks don’t know what to do with a black president,” she says. “We really can’t have a double standard.” She accuses the traditional civil rights groups of “not doing what they would do if it was someone other than a black man in office.”
To hold Obama accountable, she created the Tracking Change wiki to follow the stimulus money and document whether a proportionate share reaches the black community.
Glen Ford, who co-edits the left-leaning Black Agenda Report, says the pull to support Obama is powerful for blacks. When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Ford recalls, editors at the online publication endorsed him even though he was too middle-of-the-road for their tastes. “We did not want to be perceived as the proverbial crabs in a barrel trying to bring a brother down,” Ford says.
But as Obama settles into his presidency, Ford says, it would be irresponsible not to look at him critically. He puts it this way: “We broke out of our cowardice.”
“With the state of the economy, the fact that we’re at war on at least two fronts, we’re dealing with 50 percent dropout rates for some high school students, we’re losing jobs–we don’t have time to celebrate nothing,” Johnson says. “Anybody who cares about making history more than they care about the transformation of their community and their country has a real misplaced understanding of what making history is supposed to mean. . . . The person that I believe we voted for doesn’t want us to continue to celebrate him.”