by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
I’ve always maintained that Black people elect African Americans to political office based on their ability to articulate the myriad of Black problems. Not because they offer solutions, but because they are better than their opponent in articulating them.
From the outhouse to the Whitehouse, Black politicians have mastered the political art of placing blame and expressing our pain, but rarely offer more than Band-Aids, or aspirins when it comes to providing meaningful solutions.
If we’re lucky, and if the political winds are blowing in our direction (meaning the Democrats are in the majority or the powers that be are embarrassed into addressing a grievous wrong—they might manipulate a crumb or two. But for the most part, what’s come out of Washington, D.C., Madison or City Hall has been legislation to ease our pain, not exorcise our demons.
That’s why we’ve seen very little real change in our plight in the last half century, and a strong case can be made that in many respects, we’re in worse shape than we were when the election of John F. Kennedy promised a second period of Reconstruction.
The reality is that the Black poverty rate in 1965–when President LB Johnson signed the historic civil rights legislation and began his war on poverty–was 40%. Yesterday, a half century later, it was ‘45%.’ Ten trillion dollars, hundreds of laws, affirmative action (which ironically was started by a Republican president, Richard Nixon) and thousands of contracts for poverty pimps later, we’re in a deeper hole than we’ve ever been.
Black male unemployment: 58%. Single headed households, led by an impoverished Black woman: 72%.
Infant mortality, high school dropout rate, incarceration, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, belief in Santa Claus? We lead the nation.
I’m not bringing this up to disparage Black politicians or the 35% of us who vote regularly. Given the circumstances–the partisan political system as it’s currently structured, the control of politics and politicians by special interests and lack of accountability by Black voters, combined with our obvious lack of political sophistication– it’s a wonder anything has been accomplished.
Of course that leads to the abyss of misguided expectations, as opposed to political reality. We have been sold this bill of goods that having more Black politicians would result in major improvements to our abysmal status quo.
Voting is the key, they tell us; Black people are at the bottom of the totem pole because we don’t fully embrace the political system. Or, as the Temptations once sang, “vote for me and I’ll set you free.”
Well that hasn’t happened, and not because Black politicians sold us a bill of goods. Some probably truly believe they can change the world, or at least our block.
Truth is for every three righteous and dedicated Black politicians there is one egotist fulfilling his or her narcissist dream and one self serving—albeit articulate—opportunists taking up space.
But even if all members of the Black political corps were on the same train and track (putting our agenda ahead of political parties or special interests), the way the system is set up, and facing established odds, we would probably still be in the same predicament.
It’s the system dummies! Not just the partisan system that ill serves Black Americans, but a system where dollars speak louder than sense, where there is greater incentive to maintain a failing and racist status quo than it does to follow a moral code.
Pragmatic Black politicians will acknowledge that they are just pawns in a high stake chess game where you rarely see the true power brokers, but you feel their wrath if you take your head out of the sand long enough to see what’s going on. Better to expose your butt and catch a few worms than to stick you neck out too long and have your head chopped off.
Those controlling the system are not just old White men sitting in an ivory tower, but military and intelligence operatives who control foreign policies and dictate world politics. And let’s not underestimate the bureaucrats who have their own motivations and self interests. Remember, politicians come and go, but bureaucrats, educrats and, closer to home, “Negrocrats,” are forever.
I can provide a plethora of local examples to illustrate my point, but let’s turn to the national spotlight for a more revealing analysis.
The presidency of Barack Obama epitomizes this political dichotomy. He has learned during his short tenure that there is a vast difference between articulating a problem, and providing a meaningful solution, even if you are president and chief executive of the most powerful nation on the planet.
The nation’s first acknowledged Black president has repeatedly been forced to contradict himself, to skate around promises and to slow his agenda because of political obstacles, not all of which can be traced to the Republican opposition, but equally from the other aforementioned power brokers (and often from within his own party).
He has also had to come to grips with the reality that political statements should be general and carefully stated, as they can come back to haunt you.
Case in point: the president was under fire recently for assailing then-President Bush’s decision to raise the national debt ceiling five years ago. At the time, then-Senator Barack Obama uttered the now infamous words:
“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” he said. “It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
Today, it is Obama singing songs of doom and gloom, necessitating the imperative of raising the debt ceiling; advocating for the same ‘solution’ he criticized Bush for resorting to. And the Republicans are making sure he doesn’t forget his declarations of 2006.
If nothing else, President Obama has now learned the lesson that a politician never says ‘never.’ He has also learned the truth of my favorite axiom that ‘stumbling doesn’t always mean you’ll ‘fall forward faster.’
President Obama assessed that his $800 billion stimulus initiative would kick start the economy, and put America back to work. It was his belief that by introducing the largest corporate welfare plan in history, he would save the banking, auto and manufacturing industries and thereby stimulate the economy and create jobs.
Few can ignore the fact that the economy is a tad bit stronger (and could have been worse), and that the stimulus was a necessary evil, but unemployment is still over 9%, and that statistic is based on the percentage of people looking for work according to the U.S. Labor Department. Those who have exhausted unemployment benefits, accepted part time work or who have all but given up aren’t counted. The Black unemployment rate is 58% for Black men 18 to 50 years of age.
Corporate America benefited greatly from that near trillion-dollar ‘welfare’ grant. But they didn’t spread the wealth. Instead they reinvested their newfound record profits in overseas markets and banked the rest.
Candidate Barack talked of diversity, civil rights and leveling the playing field. But his cabinet selection and moderate policies speak to a political reality and partisan status quo that defines American politics. A telling illustration was presented on the night of the SEAL mission that resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Television and news photos showed the president sitting among his most trusted advisors in the ‘war room.’ Not one was Black. Does that mean there are no Democratic Party Condoleezza Rice’s or Colin Powell’s out there? Or does it reflect a reality that partisan politics is in truth different wings on the same bird?
The president campaigned on ending the war(s), ending tax breaks for the rich, and shifting resources to the have nots. Political realities slowed his efforts to end the wars; in fact he increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. Instead of interjecting socialism, as Republicans and Right Wingers claim, he instead tried to appease his opponents and extended the Republican/Bush tax cuts.
President Obama learned quickly that there are forces—not all political—that rule the nest, and idealism rarely overpowers greed, race and cultural realities.
Based on his speeches and campaign promises, many of us assumed President Obama would advance a new foreign policy, one that sought diplomacy over destruction. Instead there are more troops abroad, and many Black leaders, led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, lambasting the president over his military intervention in the Middle East.
None of this is to imply we have lost faith in, nor lessened our support for the president. But there is a lesson Black America should have also learned from his tenure: The president isn’t king, nor does he have absolute power. Moreover, the two political parties are (again) different wings on the same bird, particularly if you’re talking about true empowerment of the Black masses.
Some have criticized the president for not addressing Black issues. And there’s some merit to that assessment. But only a fool would have thought being Black meant he could and would solve the myriad of Black problems, or even prioritize them. It’s not going to happen; not because Barack Obama is apathetic to the Black plight, but because the ‘system’ isn’t set up to address the needs of the have nots
Remember, poverty and social dysfunctionality is big business. And those who profit from it have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. And they are the puppeteers of this country.
There are rules to the game, potholes along the road, and land mines planted among the corn fields. If President Obama can make it through the obstacles, the rules say he can carve his initials on the drawbridge during his second term. As a lame duck, with nothing to lose, he can appoint an all Black cabinet, push legislation for reparations and outlaw prejudice and bigotry in America.
OK, he won’t go that far, but he can tell the powers-that-be to kiss his Black behind without the fear of being elected out of office. He can push an agenda that truly would bring about the ‘change’ he spoke of as he campaigned three years.
If he accomplishes nothing at all, as Black people, we should be accustomed to accepting the adage that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’