As I sat and listened to the argument between Tavis Smiley and Rev. Al Sharpton, I was sad. Both Tavis and Rev. Al have made tremendous contributions to the black community, and it seems that the “Great Obama Divide” has plagued our ability to move forward with a concerted agenda. No one knows what the future holds or which ideas are going to work, so everyone believes that their approach to leveraging the opportunity that comes with a black president is the one that will work the best. Our Black Leadership Boat is in uncharted waters, and every leader has an oar pointed in their own direction.
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Smiley and company seem to feel that President Obama isn’t engaging in enough blatant effort to prove to the world that he is committed to supporting black folks. He argues that Obama’s efforts to reach across the isle often lead to him stretching his political legs across a pool of disgusting racism in order to establish connection with those who hate his people. Smiley is correct in that our needs are usually put on the back burner, and that black people are suffering more than nearly anyone else during this economic crisis.
Sharpton feels that Obama has the capacity to show compassion toward the black community and that he is attempting to do that. His meetings with Obama have at least bore rhetorical fruit, with the president agreeing to follow-ups in the future to discuss the needs of African Americans. This communicates, at the very least, that our president is open to genuine black advocacy. The problem, however, is that there are some who are reluctant to challenge Obama the way they would if he were a white man. Whether we hold our politicians accountable should be more readily reflected by the institutions they represent, rather than the color of their skin. What is also true, however, is that both Smiley and Sharpton are holding Obama accountable. The difference is that Smiley is forced to attack from the outside in, and Sharpton is fighting from the inside out, leading to serious conflicts of interest.
Honestly, I am not sure if there is anything that President Obama could do that would not make Tavis Smiley dislike him. But either way, the rift between Sharpton and Smiley is an introduction to the post-Obama America, where being black no longer means being on the same page. It means that the man (Smiley) who once referred to Bill Clinton as the first black president cannot look a real black president in the eye and give him the benefit of the doubt. It means that Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders are forced to do the dirty work on racial equality because our black president has been terrorized into political silence on issues of race.
The post-Obama America is one where the heterogeneity of the black community becomes more prominent and undeniable. Being a black Democrat now has a number of possible meanings, not just one.
While I hope that Smiley and Sharpton overcome their problems, I don’t think they ever will. Sure, the public may get a chance to see them reconcile, but there are some divides that simply can’t be bridged. Sharpton’s greatest incentive is to protect his relationship with the White House to enhance his ability to be effective. Smiley, who has been exiled by Obama (but not Hillary Clinton), has every incentive to undermine the president’s vast support within the African American community (which is not going to work). The Great Obama Divide is with us and won’t go away anytime soon.